Posts Tagged ‘Francesco Guidolin’

Can veteran striker Antonio Di Natale help bring the Scudetto to Udine?

Aside from an unrecognised pre-FIGC championship in 1896, Udinese’s closest brush with Scudetto success game in 1954-55. Hopes weren’t high going into the season: the Bianconeri had finished 16th the previous year, staving-off relegation with two play-off draws. Another season of struggle was expected, and Udine did little to defy the expectations in the early stages.

They started the season at home to champions Inter and were beaten 2-0. A 3-1 defeat at Napoli followed, and Udinese suffered a humiliating 5-0 drubbing at Catania next. Shipping goals and rooted to the bottom, Udinese were in trouble already. This changed with the signing of Umberto Pinardi, a defender previously of Juventus and Como.

Pinardi’s arrival provided the attack-minded Bianconeri with improved balance and defensive solidity. Udinese ran-out 3-0 winners over Genoa in Pinardi’s debut and only lost another three games all-season, the last of which came on December 12th (2-0 vs. Sampdoria). The defensive strengthening had had an obvious immediate impact.

Game after game drew Udinese closer and closer to table-topping Milan. The Scudetto race opened-up, and a Bianconeri hot streak moved them to within four points of the title favourites by May 1st, 1955. The teams met in Udine for a vital contest on that date, with Milan on 39 points and Udinese on 35. Anxiety filled the Stadio Moretti, but the Zebrette tifosi knew they were within touching distance of a first Serie A championship. The excitement was palpable.

Disaster struck in the game’s early stages when Udinese ‘keeper Gianni Romano was stretchered off after a collision with Gunnar Nordahl, Milan’s Swedish forward. Substitutions weren’t allowed in 1955, so the Bianconeri were forced to solider-on against the strongest team in the league with just 10 men.

Instead of capitulating, Udinese rallied. They showed incredible grinta and fire to battle through the 90 minutes, and they emerged with a miraculous 3-2 victory. Now the title race was well and truly on. The momentum was with Udinese, and all they had to do was overturn a one-point deficit to claim the Scudetto.

Sadly, Udinese lost their form. Milan collected 9 points from their last 5 games, and the Bianconeri couldn’t keep-up the pace. Dropped points to Pro Patria, Novara and Torino proved decisive, and Udinese finished on 44 points (four short of Milan’s 48).

Udinese have come close since, finishing fourth in 1956-57 and 2004-05 and third in 1997-98. Nothing, however, has matched the excitement of the 1954-55 title race. They finished a superb fourth last season, thrilling the peninsula with some of the most exciting, attacking football in Europe but ultimately finishing 16 points behind champions Milan. This season, however, I believe that Udinese have the potential to mount their strongest title challenge since 1955.

The Bianconeri have conceded just seven league goals this season. That’s an average of 0.5 goals per game: a marked improvement on last year’s still-respectable 1.13. Udinese’s average goals scored has decreased from 1.71 to 1.29, reflecting a shift in coach Francesco Guidolin’s philosophy. Udinese have added defensive steel with compromising much of their attacking verve.

The three starting centre-backs – Danilo, Maurizio Domizzi and Mehdi Benatia – are having excellent seasons, but they aren’t the only reason for Udinese’s new watertight defence. ‘Keeper Samir Handanovic must now be considered among the best in the world. The 27-year-old Slovenian has looked unbeatable at times over the past few seasons, and he’ll surely be the subject of some big money bids next summer. Udinese have the best defence in Italy (Lazio are second with 11 conceded), and Handanovic’s form has been a huge contributing factor.

Udinese are currently second in Serie A, level with leaders Juventus on points (30). Their next two fixtures should give us an idea of their title credentials. Udinese face Lazio on Sunday and Juventus ahead of the winter break on Wednesday. The Zebrette have already played Milan, Inter, Napoli and Roma, but these games could be the toughest of their season so far.

Antonio Conte’s Juventus haven’t steamrolled their way to the top of the league, but they’re efficient, functional and undefeated. The young coach has made an excellent start to top-tier management, and Udinese will do well to keep their dominant midfielders (Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio et al.).

Lazio, meanwhile, have a new lethal spearhead in Miroslav Klose and a rock-solid defence. Edy Reja’s men are just two points behind Udinese and are one of Serie A’s toughest teams to beat, having lost just twice all season. Udinese must match these teams if they’re to make a serious Scudetto bid. This is one of the most competitive leagues in recent years, and there’ll be plenty of teams waiting to take Undinese’s place if they stumble.

Much of the Bianconeri’s success hinges on their talisman, Antonio Di Natale. Guidolin’s 3-5-1-1 system is designed to feed the ageing striker, and Udinese are highly reliant on his goals. Toto has struck 10 times in Serie A this season; 56% of Udinese’s total (18). Wing-backs Dusan Basta and Pablo Armero are next in line with three each. Antonio Floro Flores, Di Natale’s deputy, is yet to score in nine appearances.

The statistics say everything about Toto’s importance, and a long-term injury would likely derail Udinese’s title hopes. Still, the Bianconeri have a balanced XI with a solid defence, drive on the flanks and a midfield blend of guile and grinta. Udinese’s intangibles make the team a sum greater than their parts, and a bit of luck should see them push Juve & co. all the way to the wire.

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As if being implicated in a match-fixing scandal wasn’t bad enough, Udinese’s 1954-55 campaign would end on an even worse note. Arrigo De Pauli, the club’s deputy president, was killed in a car accident en route to watching Udinese’s pre-season friendly with Torino. He died only a few hours after the Bianconeri’s punishment was announced.

Udinese’s dream season had turned to the darkest of nightmares. Lazio, Bologna and Triestina cherry-picked the squad but the Bianconeri soldiered-on with the barebones. Spearheaded by new forward Giuseppe Secchi’s 22 goals, Udinese finished 1955-56 as Serie B champions and thus secured an immediate top-flight return.

Finishing fourth in their first season back, Udinese enjoyed another extended period in Serie A and survived until 1962. The slide resumed, and the Bianconeri’s yo-yo reputation continued. They were in Serie B for two seasons before dropping down to Serie C. Giuseppe Bertoli returned as an advisor but Udinese finished just 11th in Group A (1964-65).

The Bianconeri’s primavera (youth) team fared much better and captured their Scudetto equivalent. This saw a number of primavera players promoted to the senior squad in 1965-66 and the team performed much better, finishing second.

Udinese’s performances had improved, but financial restraints forced them to continually sell their better players to bigger sides year after year. It took Udine over a decade to achieve promotion: they finally achieved it in 1978, a year that also saw them win the Anglo-Italian Cup.

Having been out of Serie A since 1962, Udinese were in no mood to mess around in Serie B. The club’s new board helped mastermind a barnstorming season from which Udinese claimed 55 points and a quick return to the big time. The Bianconeri had a torrid 1979-80 campaign, and won just three Serie A games all season. Their points total (21) should’ve seen Udinese relegated, but, ironically, the very thing that had started their demise in the first place ended up saving them.

Investigators unearthed an illegal betting pool ring involving multiple players and clubs. Milan, who’d originally finished third, were the most severely implicated. Along with Lazio (originally 13th), Milan were relegated which meant survival for Udinese and Catanzaro (originally 15th and 14th respectively).

Marquee signing: Zico.

The 1980’s progressed with a highlight sixth-place finish in 1982-83. Udinese, by this point, were regarded as one of the peninsula’s stronger sides, and they hoped to cement that status with a blockbuster signing on June 1st, 1983. Brazilian legend Zico, 33, joined Udinese after a minor financial hiccup. A record 26,611 season tickets were sold for the season ahead, and Zico was soon turning on the style at the Stadio Friuli.

Zico’s new team started the season excellent, soaring as high as third, but Zico was injured in a March clash with Brescia and the Bianconeri missed him badly. They were sixth by the time he returned to fitness, and finished ninth (just five points from third) at the end of the season. Zico made a telling contribution, scoring 19 of Udinese’s 47 goals.

A troubled season followed for Udinese and Zico. Injuries and suspensions limited the Brazilian to a handful of appearances as his team finished 11th. Legal problems arose for the Zico in May 1985 and he immediately went AWOL. Zico re-appeared in Brazil after an appeal five months later, having clearly had enough of Italian football. He was never seen in an Udinese shirt again.

Meanwhile, The Biancroneri’s slide continued. Gianpaolo Pozzo took over in 1986 and was met with a baptism of fire as the club were implicated in another betting scandal. Their original punishment of relegation was overturned and replaced with a nine-point penalty for the 1986-87 season. This ultimately saw Udinese relegated, and they were in Serie B for 1987-88.

Udinese’s most notable yo-yo period followed. They were promoted and relegated four times between 1988 and 1995, never staying in the same division for any longer than two years. 1994-95 saw them promoted as Serie B runners-up, and they’ve been a top tier side ever since.

Thus starts the story of today’s Udinese. Alberto Zaccheroni was appointed manager in 1995 and Pozzo redefined the Bianconeri’s philosophies. Udinese focused their energies on setting-up a comprehensive scouting network to unearth cheap, unknown talents as a way of acquiring quality players for severely reduced fees. It’s a strategy that serves them incredibly well even today, and it has allowed the small-town side to maintain their Serie A status without considerable expenditure.

Udinese finished 10th in 1995-96. In April 1997 they scored an excellent 3-0 win over Juventus (despite playing most of the game with 10 men) and came fifth in Serie A to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Zaccheroni’s boys continued their rapid improvement in 1997-98, finishing third in Serie A before the talented coach was whisked away to AC Milan. German striker Oliver Bierhoff followed him to the San Siro after 57 goals in 86 Bianconeri appearances.

The 1990s closed with Udinese finishing sixth and eighth in Serie A. They fell into the table’s lower half in 2000-01 when they finished 12th (but still won the Intertoto Cup, that holy grail of European competition). Roy Hodgson came in for 2001-02 but was fired after badmouthing the Friuli side in the English media.

Luciano Spalletti, who’d originally managed the Bianconeri in the 2000-01 season, returned to Udine in 2002. The club’s fortunes improved immediately: Spalletti took Udinese to sixth in his first season back and seventh in his second. This was something of a golden era for Udinese. Armed with a squad of talented players like Sulley Muntari (he was a good player once upon a time, honest…) David Pizarro, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Felipe, Spalletti took the Bianconeri into the 2005-06 Champions League after finishing fourth in 2004-05.

Serse Cosmi took over when Spalletti left for Roma, and Udinese finished third in a tough Champions League group featuring Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Sporting Lisbon. Now well-known for their attractive, attacking football, Udinese finished 10th in 05-06, 10th the following season, and seventh in 2007-08.

They experienced another European high in 2008-09 by making it to the UEFA Cup quarterfinals. Udinese were sadly defeated by Werder Bremen, but it’s still an impressive achievement for a city of less than 100,000 inhabitants. The Bianconeri finished seventh in Serie A again but missed-out on UEFA Cup qualification.

2009-10 was grim. Udinese took several strides backwards and finished 15th, 11 points from Europe and nine from the relegation zone. Antonio Di Natale’s continued growth was one of the season’s only bright spots: the gifted poacher scored an outstanding 29 goals in 35 Serie A games.

Experienced coach Francesco Guidolin came in for 2010-11’s start and the Bianconeri rose again. Last season was one of Udinese’s best: they finished fourth, qualified for the Champions League and wowed Europe with some of the most exciting football on the continent.

The Bianconeri are top of Serie A by one point at the time of writing. They’ve solidified their defence (only 7 goals conceded in 14 games) without compromising they’re attacking verve, and are in a great position to make a genuine Scudetto push. This season is far from over, but Udinese are in better health than ever.


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Nobody does madness quite like Maurizio Zamparini. Football has always had its fair share of crackpot club owners (who could ever forgot Perugia’s Luciano Gaucci?) but nobody, not even Venky’s, can match Zampa in 2011. Palermo’s owner is the biggest Mangiaallenatori (“manager-eater”) in calcio (having gone through 30+ managers in his career), and is one of the most outspoken men on the peninsula.

A retail tycoon, Zamparini first dipped his toes into football in 1987 when he bought Serie C2 side Venezia. Zamparini and his money brought Venezia from the fourth-tier all the way to Serie A, and it’s telling of Zampra’s contribution (and resources) that the Venice side have slumped all the way to Serie D (non-league) without his backing. Zamparini left Venezia in 2002, and the club have been a non-entity ever since.

He bought Palermo in the same year and announced his plans to take the second-tier Rosanero back into Serie A. Zamparini achieved his goal in 2004, and Palermo have been a formidable upper-midtable side since.

Lets get this out of the way early: Zamparini has done a lot of good for Palermo. He’s taken the Aquile to new heights with excellent league finishes (three fifths and one sixth in Serie A), multiple European campaigns and last season’s Coppa Italia final. Palermo wouldn’t be where they are today without Zampa’s support, but the eccentric owner is considered one of the most ridiculous men in calcio for a number of reasons.

Never afraid to speak his mind, Zamparini will defend his club to the hilt. If he feels Palermo have been wronged, Zampa will take to the press and make his feelings known immediately. More often than not, however, this can work to Palermo’s detriment (see below for examples).

Zamparini is all too willing to openly criticise his subordinates in the public. Some of his rants against popular ex-coach Delio Rossi were particularly vile, given the excellent job Rossi did at Palermo, and he frequently criticises those he feels are underperforming.

In 2008 he famously likened Palermo to “a team of girls, not men” after a defeat to Torino. I can’t imagine why he thinks saying things like this is a good idea. In the dressing room or on the training ground, fine, say whatever you want, but in public? Such outbursts, to me, demonstrate a complete lack of professionalism that can only destabilise a squad. Constructive criticism is useful, but vitriolic tirades are completely unproductive.

He has threatened to leave Palermo on numerous occasions, most recent in August. Palermo fans jeered their team following a friendly loss to 10-man Fenerbahce, as they’re entitled to do, and Zamparini threw his toys out of the pram. “I am beginning to think that I am stinking-up Palermo,” he said, “I think this’ll be my last night as president.”

On the surface this looks like Zamparini taking responsibility for the Aquile’s failings. To me, it’s a childish outburst from a man desperate for this around him to molly-coddle his ego, kiss his backside and say “no Zampa, it’s not your fault.” And all this over a friendly? Tsk, tsk.

If Zamparini is known for anything, however, it’s his trigger-happy nature when dealing with managers. He’s gone through an extraordinary amount of managers in his time, and his patience isn’t showing signs of improving any time soon. The Aquile, for example, have changed managers 19 times since Zampa’s takeover. That’s an average of more than twice a season that would be far higher if not for Rossi’s two-year reign.

Last season was a complete fiasco. Rossi was fired after a freak 7-0 loss to Udinese and replaced by Serse Cosmi, the eccentric ex-Livorno coach. Cosmi lasted just four games, and was dismissed after a 4-0 loss to Palermo’s Sicilian rivals Catania, and guess who replaced him? Delio Rossi, the man who Zamparini had accused of “ruining” Palermo just five weeks prior.

Then there’s the case of Stefano Pioli. The ex-Chievo coach is known as a mean defensive tactician, and was brought in on June 2nd, 2001 to shore-up Palermo’s notoriously leaky defence. Pioli was fired in August before the domestic season had even started (he had just two Europa League qualifying draws with FC Thun to his name), and why? Because Zamparini “had a feeling he was going to get us (Palermo) relegated.”

This has been going on for a while. Current Udinese boss Francesco Guidolin has had four different stints in-charge of Palermo, none of which have lasted longer than a year. First firing Guidloin in December 2004, Zamparini said “he has no future here,” then proceeded to bring him back to the club on three further occasions. Does anybody else see a pattern emerging here?

It’s amazing that Palermo have achieved such success without any continuity on the manager’s office. Italian clubs aren’t known for giving managers time, but the Aquile have had four different managers in 2011 alone. New-boy Devis Mangia has had an excellent start to the season and looks to be in Zamparini’s good books, but history suggests that it won’t be long before the young coach falls foul of the volatile owner.

Personally, I think Zamparini is great entertainment. It’s easy to say that from a distance, though: if I was a Palermo supporter, I suspect I’d have a different opinion. That he’s done a lot of good for Palermo is undeniable, but who would want such a brash, explosive character attached to their club? For now, however, I will continue to “enjoy” Zampa’s mad antics from afar.

Zampa’s Greatest Quotes

“Rossi has a one per cent chance of staying on the bench, you can bet on that. The team has been completely destroyed. He ruined my Palermo… I should’ve kicked Rossi out at Christmas.” – on Delio Rossi, one of Palermo’s most popular coaches of all-time, after a freak 7-0 loss to Udinese last season. Rossi was fired shortly after.

“Changing coaches was a mistake on my part for which I ask Palermo’s fans to forgive me. I rediscovered my belief in Rossi because he is an excellent coach.” – five weeks later, Rossi was reappointed and Zamparini was backtracking.

“I will cut off their testicles and eat them in my salad.” – on Palermo’s players after a particularly poor 2003 when the club were still in Serie B.

“I didn’t mean to offend Adrian Mutu when I called him a crafy, little gypsy.” – Zampa’s way of apologising for a borderline racist rant against Mutu in 2007, when the Romanian striker had scored against Palermo (who had a man down injured).

“The English are pirates.” – on rich English clubs poaching talented Italian youngsters before they have a chance to mature in their home country.

“We should put all of the referees in prison.” – English clubs, take note: this is how you criticise a referee. Zampa unleashes on match officials after a 3-1 loss to Cagliari in January. Alessandro Matri’s Cagliari opener was clearly offside, and Zampa demanded an apology (which he didn’t receive) from the referee designators.


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