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Keep an eye out for Udinese

March 28, 2011

Italian football often struggles against a perception that it is dull. In reality, this season’s title race is as exciting as any. Three points separate the top three teams. Better still, the team sitting third – Napoli – have not won the Scudetto since 1990. Their challege has added an exciting dimension to the league, particularly as, for the past three seasons, the top trio has included Inter and two from Milan, Roma and Juventus.

Yet it is the team sitting fourth that could add a further twist to the campaign. Udinese are six points behind Milan, and although Lazio sit just two points further back in fifth, it is the Zebrette (little zebras) who have the momentum which threatens to propel them to title contention. They are unbeaten in 2011, with seven clean sheets in a row and without defeat in 13 games. The coach, Francesco Guidolin, has played down his team’s chances of rising higher in the league. “The Scudetto is a three-horse race,” he said. “It would be a triumph for us to get into the Champions League and a success to get into the Europa League.”

On the basis of Udinese’s history, he is right to be cautious. The top of Serie A is rarely-trodden ground for the side that finished 15th last season. Without a Scudetto to their name, a second place finish behind Milan in 1955 remains the pinnacle of the club’s achievements (although it was tainted by relegation as punishment for corruption). With no historical weight on their shoulders, the side from Udine, situated in the north-east of the country, appear to be playing with the freedom created by low expectations. Should they edge higher up the table, it will be intriguing to see how well the players deal with the inevitable increase in pressure.

Udinese’s remaining fixtures are not straightforward, but confirm that Guidolin’s side will have a significant impact on the destination of the Scudetto. Their trip to Lecce this Sunday is one of three games against bottom-half teams (they also host Parma and play away at Chievo). Then, aside from their trip to Fiorentina on the weekend of May 1, Udinese’s opponents are all currently sitting in the top six. Home games against Roma, Lazio and Milan as well as a trip to Napoli mean their run-in is much harder than they would have liked.

Do Udinese have reason to be afraid though? After all, this is the side who beat both Inter and Napoli 3-1 earlier in the season. They haven’t lost at home since September 19. Moreover, they have scored the joint-highest number in Serie A this season – 56 – and possess the league’s top scorer in Antonio Di Natale who has 25 to his name. Thanks to Di Natale and his strike partner Alexis Sánchez – scorer of 12 goals and a rumoured transfer target of a host of top European clubs – the team do not lack firepower. Di Natale’s exploits in front of goal have long been appreciated; he finished top of last season’s scoring charts with 29 goals and attracted interest from Juventus in the summer. Sánchez, on the other hand, has already scored more this season than during his first two seasons at the club combined. Still only 22, he has become the poster boy for his club’s recent run of good results. If the two strikers maintain their form, Udiniese will remain confident of outscoring any opponent.

Other clubs at the top also have tricky fixtures to contend with. Milan play Inter this weekend and also face Roma in May. As well as the Milan derby, Inter must play Lazio and Napoli, two teams who play each other this Sunday. While Udinese certainly have more tricky games than their rivals, there is still plenty of scope for those teams around them to take points off each other. For Udinese, the important aspect of the situation is that they will have a large say in their own destiny. Should Napoli finish top at the end of the season it will be regarded as a surprise. With eight games to go, do not rule out an even bigger shock.

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