Why Udinese Is Serie A's Most Underrated Side

Christopher Impiglia@@impigliatoFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 19:  Antonio Di Natale of Udinese Calcio (C) celebrates scoring the third goal during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Udinese Calcio at San Siro Stadium on May 19, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Juventus, Milan and Napoli have been dominating Serie A of late, with Lazio keeping pace. Now, Fiorentina, Roma and Inter Milan will be looking to win back a place in Italy's elite.

But, it would be wrong to forget about Udinese, Serie A's most underrated side. 

As usual, Udinese have been keeping a low profile through the summer transfer window. Obviously, they don't have the funds like its rivals to bring in some of the world's elite players.

However, that's not to say they won't impress this upcoming season. 

Under the more-than-capable manager Francesco Guidolin, Udinese has flourished. Two years ago he led his team to third place and a spot in the Champions League, an astonishing feat for a club generally thought to be destined for the middle of the table.

Last year, Udinese again pushed towards the top of Serie A, ultimately finishing fifth and achieving a spot in the Europa League.

Guidolin has tactically found the perfect balance for his squad: a compact, well-organized side in the traditional Italian manner built around the venerable, goalscoring machine that is Antonio “Toto” Di Natale.

Although not performing up to his standards for the Italian National Team, Di Natale has consistently delivered for Udinese, living up to his captain’s armband and earning a place in the hearts of fans and teammates alike.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have scored more goals than Toto since 2009. With over 100 goals in four years he’s “put to shame stars such as Falcao, Cavani, Ibrahimovic and Van Persie,” as Matteo Ronchetti of Goal.com notes.

At 35 years of age, he’s shown no signs of wavering, as the stats attest. He has contributed 23 goals in each of the past two seasons. Sam Lopresti of B/R was right to include him in the 10 Best-Value Fantasy Serie A picks for this season.

Toto’s longevity as a threat in front of goal can be attributed both to his own raw talent as well as the support that his team has provided thanks to Guidolin’s tactics.

But, Guidolin has done well to ensure the pressure doesn’t rest on the captain alone. Under the manager’s guidance, another striker, Luis Muriel, has had his chance to shine. In only 15 starts and a total of 22 matches, Muriel managed 11 goals and three assists. Perhaps the club’s best move on the market so far has been to keep Muriel at Udinese.

But past Muriel and Di Natale, Udinese is still not short of talent.

Although on paper they will be a weakened side by not holding onto Mehdi Benatia, Antonio Candreva, Pablo Armero and Juan Cuadrado, Udinese has had quite a successful market season. In fact, if anything, they’ve heavily reinforced their squad, considering none of the above players mentioned (besides Benatia) featured for Udinese for the entirety of last year’s successful season.

Now the club has signed both Nico Lopez and Valerio Verre from Roma, two young (both 19) and extremely talented players.

Lopez looks especially ready to make an immediate impact after being overlooked by the capital club despite his consistent performances for the Uruguayan U-20 squad, where he’s scored 10 goals in 16 appearances.

Meanwhile, Naldo seems a good replacement for Benatia, and Matej Vydra should get a chance after his successful spell at Watford, where he scored 20 goals in 41 appearances. Besides these incoming players (among others), Guidolin still has his stalwarts from last season. These include Allan, Giampiero Pinzi, Danilo, Dusan Basta and Roberto Pereyra.

Udinese are certainly not a side to be overlooked. They could very well surprise again, despite again not being the favorites for a spot in Europe.

It won’t be an easy campaign with Fiorentina, Roma, Milan, Lazio, Juventus and Inter Milan all growing in strength, but the Zebrette under Guidolin will definitely have something interesting to add before the season’s close.