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Andrew Murray On October - 26 - 2011

Team Of The Week: Di Natale Sends Udinese Top

Seven wins, 27 goals, a comeback of the decade and only one nil-nil draw in sight: last week’s round of Serie A action was a far cry from the previous week’s stalemates. A Kevin-Prince Boateng hattrick helped Milan to a 4-goal turnaround at Lecce, Inter squeezed past Chievo and Lazio crept into second, but the real story came at the Friuli. Udinese took full advantage of Juventus’ slip against Genoa with a 3-0 walkover of Novara that sees the Zebrette top of Serie A for the first time in 11 seasons.

Novara went into the tie as the league’s joint top goalscorers but they always faced an uphill task against a defence that had only shipped one Serie A goal all season. In truth, the Biancoazzurri barely stood a chance as the Zebrette produced one of their most clinical and controlled performances of the season.

That’s not to say that they didn’t have chances. Filippo Porcari skiffed the crossbar early on, and Novara hit 4 more shots than their hosts with 16. Their problem isn’t chance creation: it’s finishing. Sunday’s result means they’ve failed to score in their last 2 games despite hitting 15+ shots in each. Now that the goals are drying-up and their cutting edge has deserted them it’s hard to see where the wins are coming from.

But if Novara were toothless, Udinese were quite the opposite. The Zebrette attacked with surgical precision, scoring from 3 of their 4 shots on target and looking comfortable throughout. Antonio Di Natale was in magnificent form, opening the scoring from close range after finishing Pablo Armero’s assist in the 33rd minute and completing the rout with a superb second-half free kick.

Also providing the assist for Maurizio Domizzi’s first-half header, Toto put-in his most complete performance of the season yet. He might have spurned his hat-trick chance when he placed Isla’s through-ball inches wide of the post, but Di Natale is the league’s top scorer with 6 and only a brave man would bet on him being dislodged by the season’s end.

Toto’s inevitable retirement could prove problematic for Udinese but he’s still one of the deadliest marksmen in Europe even at 34. His finishing is sharper than ever, and you’d struggle to name a forward with better off-the-ball movement. Di Natale has adapted to life without Alexis Sanchez (last season’s strike partner) well, and his burgeoning chemistry with Gabriel Torje is exciting and encouraging.

Few thought Udinese would be able to match last season’s superb 4th-place finish after losing key players like Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Christian Zapata, but therein lies Udinese’s greatest strength. Their excellent scouting network and development system means they’re able to able to compensate for sold players with capable replacements for a fraction of the price, and they’ve done it again this season.

Nicknamed the “Romanian Messi,” Torje has shown flashes of brilliance since joining the Zebrette despite having a quiet game on Sunday. Brazilian Danilo looks a more than able substitute for Zapata, and Ghanian midfielder Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu has really stepped his game up in Inler’s absence.

These players might not match those they’ve replaced on an individual level, but they’re continually improving and slot seamlessly into Francesco Guidolin’s new 3-5-1-1 system. The Zebrette look stronger than ever. Having three CB’s means they’re never short at the back, and the shuttling runs of Armero and Dusan Basta provide both cover and penetration on the flanks.

The new system has greatly enhanced Udinese’s play. Last season they were one of the most attractive footballing sides in the world. The Zebrette attacked with style, speed and fluidity, but the strong offensive onus often left them short at the back. This season they look just as deadly going forward but also far tighter at the back. Guidolin has completely revamped his team’s defensive game plan and the results have been incredible: Udinese have only conceded twice in all competitions.

But Guidolin can’t take all the credit. Danilo, Benatia and Domizzi have excelled at the back, and Samir Handanovic has been a colossus between the sticks. A well rounded ‘keeper with obvious weaknesses, the Slovenian has been brilliant for Udinese for the past few seasons and must not be considered among the best in the world.

The question is how long can they keep this run going? Guidolin was quick to dismiss talk of a title challenge this weekend, and tonight’s trip to Napoli will be a stern test of their mettle. Pass it, however, and the Zebrette could be closer to the scudetto than Guidolin thinks.

So much depends on this young team’s ability to maintain this breakneck pace until the end of the season, and a long-term injury to Di Natale could be disastrous. Udinese, for all their qualities, are still heavily reliant on Toto and their depth up-front is questionable. Can the likes of Antonio Floro Flores <I>really</I> supply the goals when the talisman is missing?

Then there’s the old European conundrum. Guidolin has so far avoided European burnout by rotating his large squad for Europa League games, and it seems to be working. The Zebrette currently top their group and look good to progress, but they will surely need to call-in some of the big guns if they’re serious about competing on both fronts. A lengthy European campaign presents obvious problems on a domestic level.

Udinese, for now, should only look to their next game. Scudetto talk can distract and breed complacency, and it won’t be long before Juventus, Milan & co. find consistency. A long, hard slog awaits the Zebrette. The scudetto could still be a step too far, but it’d be a huge surprise if they didn’t finish in the top five this season.

Andrew Murray

Scottish football writer with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for all things calcio. Visit for more from Andrew.

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