The top of the Italian Serie A has a distinct black-and-white feel to it, with Juventus and Udinese occupying first and second place respectively. However, while many fans would have expected to see I Bianconeri in the higher reaches of the table, few would have tipped I Zebrette to be playing such a strong supporting role.
Indeed, Juventus strengthened considerably ahead of the new season, whereas Udinese, by contrast, lost three of their best players. The Udine outfit have had to sell several of their prized assets over the last few years, and while this is never easy to take, the €60m raised this time around will no doubt benefit the long-term financial health of the club.
There have been some particularly high-profile departures this year, with Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez joining Barcelona, Swiss midfielder Gokhan Inler moving to Napoli and Colombian defender Cristian Zapata signing for Villareal. This would have had a destabilising effect on many clubs, but not Udinese, who can still call on a host of other talented youngsters to soften the blow. Among them are Chilean starlet Mauricio Isla (23), Mehdi Benatia of Morocco (24), Sweden’s Joel Hekstrand (21), Brazilian defender Danilo (20) and the diminutive Gabriel Torje (21), who has already been dubbed the 'Romanian Messi'.
Udinese’s ability to unearth young players of this calibre is thanks in no small part to the seemingly inexhaustible contact book of Gino Pozzo, whose father Giampaolo has owned the club since 1986. “We follow young players in Italy very closely, but the competition is too much for our financial resources,” said Pozzo Jr. “That’s why we’ve turned to the global market.”
Udinese’s multicultural dressing room features no fewer than 16 different nationalities, and the Pozzo family appointed experienced coach Francesco Guidolin to get the best out of this diverse group of players. “All the youngsters need time to settle in,” said the 55-year-old, known for his ability to get the best out of young charges. “We need to give them time to bed in, grow and mature. They all have different qualities and their development doesn’t happen overnight.”
Guidolin is able to call upon two talented and experienced campaigners to guide his younger players at both ends of the pitch. At the back stands the towering figure of 27-year-old Slovenian international goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, a penalty specialist who saved six out of the eight spot-kicks he faced last season. As well as being an excellent shot stopper, Handanovic is also a commanding presence when coming out for crosses.
Handanovic has admirers in high places, with Italy’s legendary former goalkeeper Dino Zoff describing him as “one of the three best keepers in Europe”. Were Handanovic to leave any time soon, Udinese do possess another talented young keeper in the shape of 25-year-old Serb Zeljiko Brkic, who is currently on loan at Siena.
At the other end of the pitch is evergreen striker Antonio Di Natale who, at 34 years of age, seems to improve with every season. Di Natale has contributed seven goals and an assist to Udinese’s total of 12 strikes this season, and their sole defeat, a 2-0 loss to Napoli, came in the only match he has missed so far.
Such is the influence of the Italian international, who has established himself as a leader for Udinese both on and off the pitch. Di Natale has finished top of the Serie A scoring charts for the past two years, and he already seems well on course to become the first player since Michel Platini to achieve the feat in three consecutive seasons.
Much like former Auxerre coach Guy Roux, Guidolin’s approach appears to be to put as little pressure on his players as possible. “The goal is always to have 40 points at the end of the season to keep our place in Serie A,” he explained. “After each match, we update our points total on a large notice board in the dressing room. But we don’t concern ourselves with the league table and we have no reason to get excited.”
As for Udinese’s president, he takes an equally down-to-earth approach. “We’re up there, but the league title is not one of our objectives,” said Pozzo. “We have a good team and a good coach, but we don’t have the budget to aim for the title. Of course, it costs nothing to dream, and if the title comes along we’ll take it. But it’s better to stay realistic.”