x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Udinese should make the most of their limited time at the top

Udinese have always provided talent to many Serie A top teams, and there is a sense that their current flirtation with the top of the table will be fleeting.

A couple of days before their weekend victory against Catania, the players and staff of Udinese took a trip down memory lane.

Antonio Di Natale, Serie A's leading goalscorer, put on a jersey tailored exactly in the style of the club's first strip, from their founding 1896: black, with just a star in the middle of the chest and the badge on the breast.

Di Natale posed for photographs in it, clutching a heavy old brown leather ball, of the type used in the 19th century.

At the same event, designed to celebrate the club's longevity, Francesco Guidolin, the head coach, addressed the media in Friulano, the language of the region around the city of Udine.

He was born not far away, and can be counted among several respected managers who come from Italy's north-east, like Fabio Capello, Enzo Bearzot, Cesare Maldini and Dino Zoff.

Guidolin's work in making Udinese contenders for the title, and possibly the most pleasing team to watch this season, means his name can legitimately be mentioned alongside theirs.

Udinese's 2-0 win over Catania on Sunday stretched their unbeaten run to 13 matches. They have not lost since the last fixture of 2010 and have scored 35 goals since the turn of the year. The win over Catania included another spectacular one, from Gokhan Inler, the Swiss international midfielder.

Di Natale later scored his 23rd goal of the campaign via a penalty, awarded for a foul on the mercurial Alexis Sanchez.

In their fabulous new year run, Udinese have drawn with the league leaders AC Milan - 4-4, a match they let slip in the late stages - beaten the champions Inter Milan and defeated Juventus. With Milan, six points ahead of fourth-placed Udinese in the table, looking vulnerable, Giampaolo Pozzo, the club president, is prepared to take questions on the possibility of a scudetto. "There's no danger in dreaming, is there?" he said.

Pozzo, though, is more used to answering queries that involve the imminent availability of his club's best players, and during the nostalgic events laid on last week, it was hard to avoid the thought that Udinese's long history was one of impermanence.

"The thing that struck me when I worked there," said Roy Hodgson who was head coach at Udinese before he managed the UAE national team, "was that it was set up as a selling club."

Pozzo and his predecessors have indeed defined Udinese as one of the best suppliers of talent to the grander institutions of Serie A. Just look at Juve's forward line, which includes a trio of Udinese graduates, Vicenzo Iaquinta, Fabio Quagliarella and Simone Pepe.

Milan's Marek Jankulovski went there from Udinese; Roma's David Pizarro was there; Ali Sulley Muntari started his long European club career, which includes a European Cup with Inter, at Udinese.

So it is regarded as an inevitability that should Udinese go into the Champions League next season, it will be with a squad missing some of the stars whom Guidolin has brought together so fruitfully.

According to Di Natale, he is still at Udinese, seeking to finish as Serie A's top scorer for a second consecutive season, at his behest, having turned down moves to Napoli and Juventus in the last two transfer windows.

Sanchez, meanwhile, has become one of football's hottest properties. The inventive Chilean winger tells anybody who cares to listen that his agent keeps hearing from almost all of Europe's wealthiest clubs.

Even the less glamorous players, such as Mauricio Isla, the Chilean full-back, can be found saying: "My aim is one day to play for Milan."

The message to fans is clear: they should enjoy this flowing Udinese side while they can, because not too many of the players will hang around long enough to, say, learn Friulano and put down roots.

 

sports@thenational.ae