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Frank Lopapa On December - 15 - 2011

Udinese Looking To Continue Remarkable Run

Let’s rewind back to August, in the days leading up to the (delayed) Serie A season. If someone told you that Udinese would be tied for first place two games before the winter break, you would have probably laughed, and rightfully so, considering that the Friuli side lost two of their best players in Alexis Sanchez and Gökhan Inler to Barcelona and Napoli respectively. And yet, here we are; Udinese are currently tied for first with Juventus at 30 points, an impressive 10 points better than at this point last year. Udinese also boast the best defensive record in the league, conceding a scant seven goals in fourteen games.

What can explain the bright start for the Zebrette? The first thing that should be acknowledged is how they have been able to cope with losing two of their best players from last season. Plenty of clubs would have seen a loss in form without the likes of Sanchez and Inler, but Udinese have barely skipped a beat. Much of that goes towards their talismanic striker and captain Antonio Di Natale, who has scored ten times in thirteen games this season, and has scored a staggering 67 goals in his past 84 league matches. Just to emphasize the importance of Di Natale to the side, he also leads the league in game winning goals this season with five. While Totò does not look like the typical lone striker, standing  at only 5’7″, his quickness, intelligence, and finishing ability make him lethal on the counter and crucial to how Udinese play. Forwards tend to slow down with age, but with the Neapolitan, it is as if the opposite is true.

The effort on defense also needs to be looked at as Udinese have conceded the fewest goals in the league as well as completing the eighth most tackles per game (22.6). On an individual level, Mehdi Benatia and Danilo have the third and fourth highest average blocked shots per game (1.0 and 0.9) respectively; the two defenders have been in fine form so far this season. One cannot also forget the continued excellence of Samir Handanovič, arguably Serie A’s best goalkeeper over the past two years. The Slovenian leads the league in clean sheets (9) while only Genoa’s Sebastien Frey has faced more shots that Udinese’s number one. Considering the number of shots and lack of goals Udinese have conceded so far, it only serves to highlight how well Handanovič has been performing.

Udinese has a great tradition of selling their top assets at peak value and replacing them with inexpensive, yet talented replacements. What makes this model all the more remarkable is that the club still remains highly competitive in the league season after season. Take Alexis Sanchez for example; bought by Udinese for three million euros in 2006 and sold to Barcelona in the summer for over eight times that amount. The hole left by Sanchez was filled by the return of highly rated Italian youth international Diego Fabbrini from loan and the purchase of Gabriel “the Romanian Messi” Torje. While veteran Antonio Floro Flores has recently been preferred to either of the aforementioned two, both players are very highly rated and barely cost Udinese a dime. Inler leaves for Napoli? No problem, there is a replacement already waiting in Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (and Isla can play in the middle too!), meaning that they spent exactly zero on a direct replacement this summer. It is a skill that Udinese have perfected over the past several seasons; one could practically make a starting XI of quality players the Friulian club has sold in the past five years. All credit goes to the vast scouting network set up by the club, a web spanning from Brazil to Bucharest.

In addition to their fine form in Serie A, Udinese defeated Celtic in the Europa League Thursday night, ensuring their passage to the Round of 32. Between advancing to the knockout rounds of European competition and fighting for first in the league, this has the makings of a historic year for the Friuliani.

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