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Sunday Summary: Udinese

That was ace. I had a lot of fun this week and feel like I produced some of the blog’s best content so far. The next few weeks might be a tad spotty with Christmas and New Year, but I’ll still be producing content over the festive period. I obviously won’t be matching the prolificness of the past couple of weeks, but there’ll be something.

  • Friuli History (part one): I split this week’s historical summary into two parts because of the volume of information on Udinese’s website. Here’s part one.
  • Friuli History (part two): A piece I wrote on Schrodinger’s Cat and the experiment’s relevance in comparing marking systems. Not really.
  • Udinese & the Scudetto: Notes on Udinese’s previous brushes with the Scudetto and an appraisal on the current team’s chances of success this season.
  • The Friuli Farm: The Bianconeri’s “buy high, sell low,” model, how it benefits them and some of the greatest players to pass through the Stadio Friuli.
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Better than you think: Samir Handanovic.

Samir Handanovic is rightly recognised as one of the most improved goalkeepers in Europe. Udinese have conceded just seven Serie A goals with the 6’5” Slovenian keeping net this season, and last season he saved six penalty kicks. No, that isn’t a typo. Obviously there’s more to being a great ‘keeper than saving penalties (look at Mark Crossley) but the stat displays says a lot about Handanovic.

His size definitely helps, but you’ve got to be agile to size a well-placed penalty. Most players will try to hit their penalties in the bottom corner, well out of reach for most goalkeepers. Not that all of the penalties Handanovic faced last season were perfectly placed, but they certainly weren’t all scuffed mishits.

Composure is very important in these situations. The onus is on the striker to score, but a calm, composed goalkeeper has a far better chance of making a penalty save than a shaky, erratic one. Keeping calm allows a ‘keeper to read his opponent’s body language and get a better idea of where the ball’s going to go. Such strong anticipation is another of Handanovic’s finest points.

Handanovic has no obvious physical or mental weaknesses. He has no qualms about rushing off his line and bravely diving at oncoming strikers’ feet and his reflexes are second-to-none. It seems like Samir makes a blinding point-black save every time I watch him play, and he’s approaching an Edwin van der Sar level of proficiency with the ball at his feet.

Aside from his outstanding penalty record, Handanovic went 704 minutes without conceding a goal between February 5th and March 20th last season. In a team known for its swashbuckling attacking style and disregard for defence, this statistic doesn’t require elaboration.

Atalanta coach Stefano Colantuono has called him the best goalkeeper in Europe, and Handanovic’s excellent form has seen him receive plaudits from around the globe. There’s no doubt that he’s a fantastic, match-winning goalkeeper, but how does the 27-year-old compare with the world’s best?

In Italy, Gianluigi Buffon is the obvious benchmark. Gig has been one of the most dominant ‘keepers in the world for years and, aged 33, should have a few more years of top-level performances left in him. I don’t need to discuss the guy’s legendary status; I’m sure you already know plenty about his accolades.

Buffon is the complete ‘keeper, and Handanovic’s self-confessed idol. The problem with Buffon, however, is that he hasn’t looked the same since recovering from an injury sustained at the 2010 World Cup. He missed a huge chunk of last season and has re-established himself at Juventus, but he hasn’t been the exceptional ‘keeper of old. I’d expect Buffon’s old self to return soon and his performances haven’t been bad, they just haven’t been as out of this world as we’ve come to expect.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, there’s Napoli’s Morgan De Sanctis. Highly-regarded by the Partenopei, De Sanctis is often referred to as “Italy’s second-best goalkeeper.” I can get behind that. De Sanctis is particularly impressive in one-on-one situations, but I don’t think he can match Handanovic for reflexes and exuberance.

Federico Marchetti has had an excellent start to life at Lazio after spending last season on the sidelines at Cagliari. Marchetti, 28, has only been a Serie A ‘keeper since 2008, and I think it’s too early to consider him one of the best. Julio Cesar? Not the player he was a few seasons ago. Christian Abbiati? Solid but unspectacular. Maarten Stekelenburg? Hasn’t really done it at Roma.

The English Premier league is awash with goalkeeping talent. I regard Liverpool’s Pepe Reina as the best in the league. His consistently outstanding performances have, at times, been the only thing preventing the Reds descending into total farce, but he still commits the odd error every now and then.

Petr Cech, in my eyes, hasn’t been the same since Stephen Hunt almost kicked his head off in 2006. Cech is still undeniably very, very good and can still make brilliant saves but has played hesitantly since his injury. The Cech of 2011 is reluctant to dive at strikers’ feet and looks bothered by having to come off his line and claim a cross. It’s only natural for such an injury to have a long-lasting psychological affect, and while I still think Cech is world-class he’s lacking the bravery that used to make him truly special.

Manchester City’s Joe Hart is ever improving and an excellent shot-stopper, but he’s still raw. He’s yet to suffer the wrath of the savage English press when they’re out for blood and I don’t think it’s right to call him one of the world’s best until his mental strength is significantly tested. Just look what happened to Robert Green and Paul Robinson.

Hugo Lloris, France’s best goalkeeper, is a definite contender for the “world’s best” title. The likes of Arsenal have been courting Lloris for years, but he looks set to remain a Lyon player for the foreseeable future. An incredible athlete and a commanding presence in the box, Lloris is a ‘keeper of the highest calibre and one any team would be delighted to have.

How about the Germans? Manuel Neuer is settling into life with Bayern Munich after a difficult start and looks set to be number one for club and country for years to come. Elsewhere Rene Adler and Tim Wiese are very good ‘keepers in their own right, but neither are performing at a level comparable to Handanovic at the moment.

Arguing Handanovic’s status as a top, top ‘keeper gets difficult as soon as you reach La Liga. Iker Casillas is regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in the world, and for good reason. The Spanish #1 is an icon for Real Madrid and Spain and routinely pulls-off outstanding saves like they come naturally to him. He puts his body on the line week after week and his performances have won Real plenty of games over the year.

Victor Valdes is almost as good. Far removed from the clanger-prone buffoon of old, Valdes has become an integral part of a Barcelona team that could be argued as being the greatest club side in history. Not just an excellent shot-stopper, Valdes is brilliant with the ball at his feet and passes like a central midfielder. Hardly surprised for a La Masia graduate.

How does Handanovic compare to all of the above? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’m convinced he’s a better ‘keeper than most I’ve mentioned, but it’ll take a few more years of excellence before he’s comparable to Buffon and Casillas in-particular. That said, I can’t think of another goalie I’d rather have playing for my team at the moment.

Data: whoscored.com.

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Earlier this week I came across an unexpected name while browsing Udinese’s squad list. I’d never heard of Liam McCarthy, but a Scotsman’s name in an Italian squad tends to stick out considering the paucity of Scottish footballers plying their trade abroad.

As a Scot who loves calcio, discovering McCarthy was interesting to me. Wikipedia (I know…) told me that he’s a midfielder currently on-loan at Anderlecht, but I wanted to know more. Naturally I headed to both clubs’ official websites, but all I could dig up was a couple of references to Mick McCarthy after Jelle Van Damme’s transfer from Anderlecht to Wolves a few seasons ago.

Unperturbed, I headed straight to Google. Results, again, were thin on the ground but I did manage to dig-up a few bits and bobs from our good friend Wikipedia. McCarthy is 17-years-old and started his youth career with Kilmarnock in 2008. He transferred to Celtic two years later, before joining Udinese this past summer and immediately going to Anderlecht on-loan. He is yet to make a senior appearance for any club.

I wasn’t happy with this. My only source was an unreferenced Wikipedia article for heaven’s sake. In search of concrete proof of this guy’s existence, I scoured numerous Celtic, Udinese and Anderlecht fan-sites but found nothing. Google proved useless as well, throwing up nothing but Mick McCarthy stories. Turns out information on obscure Scottish youth players who haven’t made their pro debut is thin on the ground.

The next logical step, it seemed, was to contact Udinese and Anderlecht. Getting a few words with McCarthy on his experiences in Udine would’ve made for an excellent post, and it’d have been fascinating to learn about the Udinese youth system from someone who’s experienced it.

I sent the email on Monday evening: it’s now Saturday morning and I’ve heard nothing back. I’m not entirely surprised by this. Club secretaries are probably bombarded with mountains of rubbish every day, and I doubt they even read my humble request to speak to one of their youth players. Still, it would’ve been nice to have at least confirmed McCarthy’s existence.

As it stands, I’m not even sure if Liam McCarthy is real. He’s on Wikipedia, but you can get away with posting any old guff on Wiki these days. If you are a Celtic, Udinese or Anderlecht follower who knows more about McCarthy than I do, I’d love to hear from you.

Maybe I should’ve checked Football Manager…

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Trendsetter: Udinese's Giampaolo Pozzo.

Udinese’s success is nothing short of remarkable given their finances. The Zebrette earned €41m in revenue last season, a tiny figure compared to Inter (€225m), Milan (€208m) and Roma (€123m), all of who are currently below Udinese in the league. Their average attendance is just 15,000, their TV income (€26m) is a quarter of Juventus and Milan’s and last season’s total gate receipts (€3.6m) was 34-times smaller than Manchester United’s.

Despite all this, Udinese’s year-end accounts usually show a profit of around €6-8m. How do they accomplish this with such small revenue streams? By selling players. The Bianconeri have, over the past 10 years, received a staggering net profit of €112m from buying and selling players. They have perfect the “buy low, sell high,” model, and are cable to compete at the highest level because of it.

Club president Giampaolo Pozzo first implemented the strategy in the 1990s. Udinese’s tiny budget made it impossible to compete with the bigger clubs for transfer fees and wages, forcing Pozzo to find a more financially-efficient way of lifting the club’s league position.

The system is similar to Arsenal’s only far more efficient. Udinese eschew inflated fees and wages (Antonio Di Natale, €20k p/w, is the club’s highest earner) and spend their resources on scouting and networking instead. The Zebrette currently employ over 50 scouts and have ties with literally hundreds of local contacts worldwide. It costs just €4m p/a to maintain this scouting network, and this is almost repaid by the €3.6m Udinese earn annually from loaning players out.

It’s estimated that Udinese have a stake in over 120 players worldwide. They supplied an astonishing 14 loanees to bolster Granada’s promotion campaign last season and have leant the new La Liga side a further five players this term. Furthermore, Udinese own another 32 players who are currently on loan at or co-owned by other clubs.

The system is quick and efficient. Udinese send vast quantities of young players out on loan every season to aid their growth and thus boost their market value. It’s an effective money-spinner and a method of developing quality players without parting with swathes of cash. As an example, Samir Handanovic was signed on a free transfer in 2004. He is now considered among the world’s best ‘keepers after loan spells at Treviso, Lazio and Rimini and an extended spell in the Udinese XI, and will command a seven-figure fee if (when?) he leaves.

I think it’s a very honourable way of achieving success. Bring in a player with good potential for a nominal fee and train him until he’s ready for the first team or developed to a point where he can achieve success at a lower or higher level. It’s certainly more admirable than the tasteless Chelsea/Man City model and a clever way of doing business.

I’m surprised more clubs haven’t adopted such a model. There’s Arsenal, of course, and Newcastle United are beginning to benefit from their growing scouting network. Borussia Dortmund have built a successful team by purchasing unheralded players and tapping into their potential. Other that, I’m at a loss.

Financial Fair Play’s implementation will surely see more clubs follow Udinese’s lead. Soon it’ll make much more sense to scout and sign young players on the cheap rather than splurdge millions on Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres. FFP will level the playing field, and I can’t decide if that’s good for Udinese or not. The Bianconeri’s system has been in-place for years so they should have an immediate advantage, but what’ll happen to them when transfer fees (their primary income source) start falling?

The Udinese system isn’t perfect though. Its one major disadvantage is that cannot feasibly hold on to star players for longer than a couple of seasons. Di Natale is the obvious exception, but the Zebrette are in no financial position to reject big money bids for their prized assets.

Three of the club’s best players (Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler & Christian Zapata) left during the summer, and the trend is only going to continue. Udinese are usually able to replace their stars with shrewd signings which usually negates the above argument, but it’s hard to see them progressing until they’re in a position to hond onto their top players.

Regardless, some excellent players have passed through Udinese over the years. Here are some of the Friuli farm’s biggest success stories:-

Antonio Di Natale

Why not start with the obvious? Toto, even at 34, is the peninsula’s most feared goal-getters. Signed from relegated Empoli in 2004, Di Natale has notched 143 goals in 280 Bianconeri appearances. This season’s 13 from 17 mark a healthy return for the ex-Azzurri forward, who has scored 28 and 29 goals in his last two Serie A campaigns. Loyal (he turned down a huge Juventus contract in 2010) and dependable, Udinese will struggle when Di Natale eventually retires.

Oliver Bierhoff

Anybody who watched football in the ‘90s should be familiar with Bierhoff. The German striker was playing for Serie B’s Ascoli when Udinese signed him in 1995. Three years later he was Serie A’s top scorer and a full international. Bierhoff went on to Scudetto success with AC Milan and was a 1996 European Championship winner.

David Pizzaro

A wonderfully talented deep-lying playmaker who is criminally underrated outside of Italy, Pizarro signed for buttons from Santiago Wanderers in 1999 and was Udinese’s heartbeat until a 2005 transfer to Inter. Known for his Xavi-esque passing ability, Pizzaro’s post-Udine career has seen him win a Scudetto (with Inter) and three Coppa Italias (one with Inter, two with Roma). One of my favourite players.

Sulley Muntari & Asamoah Gyan

The two Ghanians arrived in Udine within a year of each other. Both stayed for five years and experienced varying levels of success. Muntari was a huge success, establishing himself as the club’s midfield enforcer and made over 120 Serie A appearances. He signed for Portsmouth for an estimated €9m in 2007. Gyan, on the other hand, only ever played 39 games for Udinese, but the club still earned an €8m from Rennes for his services in 2008.

Felipe

Few players epitomise the Udinese model’s success like the Brazilian defender. Felipe joined the Zebrette’s youth system as a 15-year old in 1999 and had joined the senior squad by 2002. He was a key member of the Bianconeri’s Champions League squad in 2005-06, but fell out of favour in 2009 and was sold to Fiorentina for €6m last year. Felipe made 175 appearances in all competitions for Udinese but hasn’t established himself in Florence.

Alexis Sanchez

The Chilean forward’s sale is one of the Udinese model’s greatest successes. Signed in 2006 but immediately loaned to River Plate and Colo Colo, Sanchez didn’t make his Udinese debut until 2008. He came of age last season after switching from the wing to playing as Di Natale’s supporting trequartista. Barcelona paid €26m plus bonuses for his services after a 12-goal haul last season.

* For more on Udinese’s finances please check out this typically fascinating article from The Swiss Ramble: Udinese Selling Their Way To The Top.

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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.

Sources

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*I’m going to split this into two separate posts. Udinese’s website has an exceptional (English-language) history section and I don’t want an overlong article. I’ll post the rest sometime tomorrow morning.*

Antonio Dal Dan. Photo credit: http://www.udinese.it

Udinese Calcio were formed in 1896 as Societá Udinese di Ginnastica e Scherma’s (Udinese Society of Gymnastics and Fencing) footballing section. They are the second-oldest club in Serie A (after Genoa, who formed in 1893) and had a brush with championship success in their very first year.

Treviso sides Pg Ferrara and Istituto Turrazza welcomed Udinese to their city as part of a three-team tournament in 1896. Udinese defeated Turrazza on September 6th and Ferrara two days later to win the competition but the FIGC (Italian FA, basically) wasn’t formed until 1898, meaning that the Zebrette’s triumph remains unrecognised.

These fixtures weren’t Udinese’s first, though. A Societá team had competed against Bologna in Rome a year earlier, with King Umberto of Italy among those in attendance. This game coupled with the Societá’s Treviso triumph helped increase calcio’s importance in Udine, but it would take football a few more years to displace gymnastics and fencing as the city’s favoured sports.

Antonio Dal Dan, “the pioneer of bianonero football,” was an influential figure during this period. He captained Udinese to both victories in Treviso, and played a big role in getting the club (now named Associazione Calcio Udinese) enlisted with the FIGC in 1911. Udinese, now captained by Luigi Dal Dan (Antonio’s son), defeated Juventus Palmanova 6-0 in their first game as a FIGC-registered side.

Udinese took part in their first FIGC Championship in 1912-13, playing against two sides from Padova. The Zebrette defeated both, and this was enough to see them promoted to Italy’s top tier. They stayed there until football was suspended for the First World War in 1915, finishing ninth and fifth.

Football returned in 1919, and Udinese emerged from the conflict with a new president, Earl Alessandro of Torso. 1920 marked a future legend’s debut. Gino Bellotto, an all-rounder capable of operating anywhere on the pitch, played 17 consecutive seasons at Udinese: a record that still stands today.

Having peaked with a second-place league finish and Coppa Italia final the previous year, 1922-23 was dismal for Udinese. The Zebertte took just five points from a 22-game season and were predictably relegated to the second-tier. Returning to the Prima Divisione at the second time of asking, Udinese were promptly relegated after finishing 10th and refusing to take part in the relegation playoffs.

Back in the second tier, Udinese endured another torrid season and were relegated for a second consecutive year. In a bizarre twist, however, the FIGC decided to overturn the Bianconeri’s relegation. The federation ruled that Udinese were too big a club to play in the third tier, so they were spared demotion. Can you imagine the uproar such a move would cause today? How times change.

The league’s reconstruction in 1929 had an adverse effect on Udinese, who were put into Serie C (the third tier) despite finishing sixth the year before. The second tier had previously consisted of a series of regional divisions. These divisions were combined to form a single league (Serie B) comprised of teams relegated from the top flight (Serie A) and those who’d finished in the previous season’s promotion places. Thus Udinese wound-up in the league below.

Udinese immediately won Serie B promotion, but struggled with mounting financial problems and were relegated two seasons later. Thus began a lengthy period in the third tier that eventually ended with final stage victories over Brescia, Reggiana and Savona in 1939. The Bianconeri’s decade ended with a comfortable tenth-place Serie B finish.

The 1940s were moderately more successful. Udinese stayed in Serie B until World War II, when football was again suspended and players returned home for fear of being drafted. After a brief sojourn in Serie C, the team returned to Serie A for the 1950-51 season after two consecutive promotions.

This was a period of great change in Udine. Local entrepreneur Giuseppe Bertoli became the club’s president and used his personal funds to erase nine million lira of Udinese’s debt. It took numerous managerial changes for Bertoli to find a balance but the Zebrette were eventually promoted with ex-Azzurri ‘keeper Aldo Olivieri in-charge. Udinese finished second, one point behind champions Napoli.

Udinese were able to maintain the nucleus of their promotion team, which helped maintain stability and team spirit for the next season. They finished a credible 9th in 1950-51 (Serie A) and 11th the following season, despite a morale-sapping 7-2 home loss to Juventus.

Bertoli stepped down as president at the end of the 1951-52 season and handed the reigns to his son-in-law, Dino Bruseschi. Bruseschi brought Olivieri back to Udine but the team struggled and only avoided relegation with a 3-2 defeat of Pro Patria on the last day of the season.

Out went Olivieri, in came new coach Peppino Bigogno and a host of new players. It was another disappointing Serie A campaign, however, and Udinese finished on level points (26) with SPAL and Palermo. In those days Serie A used playoffs to separate teams who finished with the same points total, so the three teams would have to play against each other to determine who’d finish in the second relegation place.

Udinese drew both of their fixtures (0-0 vs. SPAL and 1-1 vs. Palermo), making the clash between SPAL and Palermo pivotal. SPAL, fortunately for the Bianconeri, won 2-1, condemning the Aquile to relegation and saving Udinese’s neck.

1953-54 had been deeply disappointing, but 1954-55 was a real rollercaoster. The Bianconeri finished second after a season full of twists, turns and intrigue. I’ll refrain from going into too much detail at the moment as I want to cover the season in greater detail later this week, but it was an astonishing campaign.

Udinese should’ve been jubilant after such an excellent finish but the season ended in disaster. Suspicions arose over a fixture with Pro Patria two years earlier and Udinese were relegated to Serie B following an FIGC investigation. It was a hugely controversial verdict and protestors flooded Udine immediately after. Bianconeri fans and alumni have protested the club’s innocence ever since.

To be continued.

Sources

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