The start of the new season – no matter what league your team plays in or which division it has a passing interest in – provides a great deal of optimism. Everyone generally anticipates how they think the season will end: who will win the league; Who will finish in the top four; Who will fight for a European place? Any sides can be surprisingly dragged into a relegation battle, and teams that seem almost inevitable are down from day one.
The Italian league is no different in this regard. Before kicking the ball in mid-August, most of the top four had already been decided upon. Deciding to win the Scudetto is a bit more complicated, but the feeling was that the “Big Three” plus one from Napoli and Roma would complete the Champions League positions.
However, even though these days are very early and we are far from the finish line, there is another team sitting in fourth. Not Roma, Inter or Juventus.
Yes, the season is only six games, but Zebrette is flying high and is the most informed aspect of the league. They gave Milan a serious scare for the San Siro on opening day, overcoming Fiorentina at home, and following that with a 4-0 win over Jose Mourinho’s Roma as they seemed to score every time they ventured forward.
New coach Andrea Sutil, father of current Fiorentina winger Ricciardo, was appointed in the summer after leading Ascoli to the Serie B playoffs last season. Sutil, who was a former Udinese player from 1999 to 2003, has been surprised by his team’s start to the season.
“I didn’t expect it,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Sunday against Inter. “But we are only at the beginning and we need to continue like this.”
Udinese has quietly built an impressive squad, mixing experienced players such as Gerard Deulofeu, Roberto Pereira, Ilya Nestorowski and youngsters in the form of Beto, Lazar Samardjic, Picao and new Spurs, named Destiny Udoji.
To date, Udinese has surpassed many major clubs in the league, and this is reflected in the statistics. Beto ranks second on Capocannoniere’s lists with four goals and leads the way when it comes to goals every 90 minutes (P90). Furthermore, the Portuguese striker is currently leading the way in the P90 “Expected Goals” (xG), with 1.02. The second-best player is Inter’s Joaquin Correa, at 0.75.
Pereira is the best assistant in the league alongside Lazio player Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and Deulofeu is third behind Piotr Zielinski and Paulo Dybala in terms of expected assists.
In short, Udinese attacks his weight and beats some of the biggest teams and big names in the league.
This was not always the case. For a period at the end of the 2000s and into the early 2010s, it was no surprise to see Udinese regularly challenged for third place in Serie A. Twice, Udinese came close to reaching the Champions League, but fell victim. To an unlucky draw and Italy slipping into the European Football Association
Having finished third in 2011-12, Udinese, just two years earlier, would have secured a place in the Champions League, but after losing ground to the Bundesliga, Italy had only two teams that were guaranteed entry, and the third went to the final qualifying round.
The previous year saw them finish fourth and draw with Arsenal and lose 3-1 on aggregate after two tough matches. After their draw with Braga in 2012, Udinese looked as good as they had been during this time.
The 1-1 draw in Portugal in the first leg meant they were in the driving seat ahead of the second leg. Once again, the match ended 1-1 and went to a penalty shootout. Every player scored for Udinese, with the exception of new player Maikoswill, who tried Panenka, and failed spectacularly.
Braga managed to qualify, and Udinese hasn’t really been the same club since then. After leaving Francesco Guidolin in the summer of 2014, the Pozzo family, who had bought Watford just months before the Braga matches, have passed 12 coaches – with Sutil’s thirteenth – in eight years.
Pozzo’s preoccupation with Watford saw Udinese slip into the middle of the standings for the remainder of the 2000s. after finishing 5The tenth In 2012-13, they haven’t been back in the top half of the table since, even teasing dangerously relegated landings in 2015-16.
Antonio Di Natale, a club icon who stayed for a long time with Udinese during those tough days, now believes the club could once again compete for a place in the Europa League. “Why not? Europe is no longer a dream,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport recently. “After Guidolin, there have been a lot of changes, but now there is a good mix of experience, youth and quality in the team.”
Di Natale is impressed by Beto, and with four goals already in place, the 24-year-old could be on his way to a breakout season. Signed from Portimonense on loan for a season a year ago, the move became permanent last summer after scoring 11 goals in 28 games last season, and is on track to smash that total.
These are of course early days and expectations have to be suppressed, but after years of mundane suffering just to be in Serie A, things are starting to look forward to Udinese.