Everyone presumed that Udinese would be mere makeweights when they made their first ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League. Far from it. For their 100th anniversary, the club who gave Dino Zoff his big chance in Serie A are enjoying their best season ever.
Udinese are a mere stud's breadth away from pulling off a major first and qualifying for the Round of 16. All they need to do is avoid defeat at home to Barcelona, who have already qualified, on 7 December.
Udinese Gymnastics and Fencing Club won their first tournament in September 1896. The Italian Football Association has never recognised this achievement, however - mainly due to the fact that the competition was organised by the Italian Fencing Association! The Associazione Calcio Udinese officially affiliated itself with the Federcalcio on 5 July 1911, and right from the early days, the club blew hot and cold and found itself locked in promotion and relegation battles between Serie A and the lower leagues.
The club from Udine was family run for many years and counted on the incredible loyalty of their players. The legendary Gino Belloto was one such example of this, staying with the club for 17 seasons and playing in every outfield position. Even now, loyalty is still a watchword. 32-year-old defender Valerio Bertotto has been with the club for 13 seasons. Their high point up until now came in 1954-55, when the whole country followed their fortunes as they eventually finished gallant runners-up to an AC Milan team which had the likes of Green, Nordhal, Liedholm and Schiaffino in its ranks.
The team stepped up a level in the early 80s, with the arrivals of Italian internationals Causio and Pulici, Surjak from Croatia and Brazilians Edinho and Di Virdis. In August 1983, some 26,611 fans packed the Friuli stadium to welcome Zico. The Alberto Zaccheroni era, which began a decade later, saw Udinese establish themselves in the top half of the table, due in no small part to German striker Oliver Bierhoff's goals, notably in 1998, when he finished as Serie A top-scorer with 27.
Since regaining promotion in 95-96, Udinese have won the fourth most away games in Serie A, behind the big three of Juventus and the two Milan clubs. Over the last three seasons, they have gained half of their points on their travels, and this away form helped them avoid relegation in 2001-02, when they won seven of their eleven games on the road.
An attack-minded team
"The club has always tried to play attractive, attacking football," explains Bertotto, the captain. "The various managers I've played under here were all hired for their attack-minded tendencies." The current manager, 47-year-old Serse Cosmi, is a household name in Italian football after taking his first club, Arezzo, from the amateur leagues to the third division, before winning the Intertoto Cup in 2000 with Perugia and getting through the first three rounds of the UEFA Cup.
In this season's Champions League, Cosmi has put his faith in a spectacular 4-3-3 formation which has seen Udinese capture some notable scalps, such as Sporting Lisbon in the third qualifying round (1-0 and 3-2) and then Panathinaikos home and away (3-0 and 2-1) in the group stage.
The win in Greece brought out the best from this attack-minded team, who managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the final ten minutes. "We deserve our place in the Champions League," insists Cosmi. "We've already proved that. We've played some good, open football and we've never sat back looking for a draw. That's what I like best about this team."
With the final matchday approaching, Udinese are three points ahead of Panathinaikos and German outfit Werder Bremen, but they still have some work to do. Although their head to head record against the Greek team is better, that is not the case with Werder Bremen, against whom they drew 1-1 and lost 4-3. Should Udinese lose to Barcelona and Bremen beat Panathinaikos, the Germans would go through.
Caution will therefore be the order of the day for Bertotto, since a draw would see them through regardless of the other result. In front of their own fanatical supporters and with the whole Friuli region willing them on, however, it is hard to see Cosmi and his men merely trying to stifle one of Europe's most flamboyant teams. The away leg saw Barça thrash Udinese 4-1 thanks to a hat-trick from Ronaldinho, so Wednesday night should see some fireworks!