Udinese came to Milan with few fans and even fewer hopes. In truth their season has been a disaster, and despite a fine second-half display, the travelling fans would have been surprised to witness Nicolas Lopez’s superb individual winner.
In recent years, Udinese have looked like an attractive side. With a tactically savvy coach and a wealth of undiscovered talent from South America revolving through the doors at the Stadio Friuli, they seemed to have the ideal setup. Add to this the ever-green Antonio Di Natale and it is easy to see why they have taken many big scalps and finished in the Europa and even Champions League spots.
This season, however, is a different story. Despite their impressive efforts in the Coppa Italia, their league form has been very poor. After 20 games they sit in 15th place with six wins, two draws and an incredible 12 defeats to their name. They have conceded 31 and scored only 20, and dangle precariously only three points off the drop zone.
One reason for this is the evident decline of Di Natale who, at the beginning of the year, decided to call this season his last season. This is catastrophic news for fans of the Zebrette. The 36-year-old signed for the club in 2004 and has become an icon for his goal-scoring ability. He finished top scorer in the division in 2009/10 and 2001/12, but this season he has struggled to find his clinical best and has only managed five goals.
Udinese have often had to sell off some of their major stars to balance the books and also because the allure of teams like Barcelona to Alexi Sanchez, per say, is just too great. In the closed season this summer, however, there was an exodus of over 20 players with names like Antonio Candreva, Juan Cuadrado, Pablo Armero, Mehdi Benatia, Andrea Coda, Giovanni Pasquale and Marco Faraoni all leaving. This has been a step too far, and the results have been evident on the pitch.
Coach Francesco Guidolin signed a new contract in the summer, and in truth it was richly deserved. He had his team drilled into an outfit that could destroy teams on the counter-attack, and his famous 3-5-2 formation was revered on the peninsula. It is perhaps the contributing factors of Di Natale’s dip in form and the huge turnover of players that have not allowed this system to work as fluidly as has been the case in recent years. It is either this or that other teams have finally figured him out.
There is still a long way to go in the season, and there is no doubt that the Coppa Italia win against Milan will boost confidence. The problem for Guidolin and his team is that he has to find a way to make his team gel, and quickly. The defeat at home to Lazio this weekend was fifth at home so far this year, and with Di Natale unable to haul them back on his own, the question has to be asked: Could they unthinkably slip into Serie B?