As Serie A broke for the winter period after 16 rounds of action, Udinese sat in third position in the table, two points away from Milan and Juventus, who shared top spot between them. Lazio were a place and two points behind Francesco Guidolin’s men, whilst Napoli were four places and eight points back.
Going into Week 28’s head-on clash with the Vesuviani, however, the Zebrette found themselves down to fifth place, 11 points off first position and two behind Lazio in third. Visitors to the Stadio Friuli Napoli had caught up and may have gone into the weekend level on points, but they were ahead of Udinese in the table and favourites to win.
Over the previous 11 rounds of action played since the turn of the year, the Bianconeri had averaged 1.27 points per game, had kept only two clean sheets and had conceded 15 goals. Compared to the two points-per-game average, 10 clean sheets and just nine goals conceded during Weeks 1-16, the calendar year of 2012 had so far seen a significant drop in the Zebrette’s performance levels.
Ahead of the weekend’s meeting with Walter Mazzarri’s side, Udinese had faced slight but growing concern over the direction their season was heading. The most popular explanation was the loss to poor form or injury of a number of otherwise integral first-team members and, subsequently, the club’s lack of planning in the January transfer window to provide for it.
Mehdi Benatia and Kwadwo Asamoah have both been cited in recent weeks for a drop in performance levels since returning from the African Cup of Nations, whilst Mauricio Isla’s season-ending knee injury has stripped the side of a crucial element in its transitions from defence to attack. That Guidolin has fielded several midfield combinations since Isla’s injury alone is suggestive enough that he was still uncertain of his best plan B.
However, of more concern would have been a second developing theory to the Zebrette’s recent slump. Local media to the club had begun suggesting that Guidolin’s continued message to his players that third place was not theirs for the taking may have been a move intended to quell outside enthusiasm, but has in fact had a psychosomatic effect on the dressing room. In other words, those who covered Udinese most closely were starting to see signs of a team that no longer believed they could be at the level they had spent the last 15 months or so competing at.
Week 28 was Guidolin and his players’ best opportunity to answer such doubts and for 81 minutes they had provided the perfect scripted response. The team had scored twice and given the absences for the side, it was significant that both goals had come from an unlikely outlet.
Hitting the Partenopei on two quick attacks, Udinese netted through only Giampiero Pinzi’s 10th shot of the entire season, whilst his 11th hit the post to fall kindly to Antonio Di Natale for 2-0. Equally important was the incoming Roberto Pereyra’s performance, suggestive that once again, Guidolin and his club were working as one in finding suitable alternatives when most needed.
From the hour mark and for 21 minutes the team had also held firm in keeping Napoli out with only 10 men after Diego Fabbrini’s second yellow and for a similar amount of time without Guidolin’s instruction from the bench after he too had been dismissed. With Edinson Cavani’s penalty miss, the Udine side even looked to have luck on their side.
Ultimately though, the Uruguayan’s quick-fire double in the final 10 minutes of play turned the result around and put paid to a perfect performance for the home side and stripped Udinese of two extra points, third place and the valuable head-to-head record with Napoli. However, that focus after the game will be on what was within touching distance of the team and how – as patron Giampaolo Pozzo intimated – the referee influenced things, may be all Udinese need for the season run-in – belief once more in their own ability to compete at the top end of the table.
Meanwhile, third place was open to both sides – though not pounced upon – as a result of Lazio’s second successive League reverse, this time away to Catania. Defeat to the Sicilians carries little shame, however – such has been Gli Elefanti’s form during the second round of League fixtures, not only do they find themselves only behind Milan for points gained, but they see Coach Vincenzo Montella forced to deny links to the likes of Inter and Napoli.
Even though only two of the nine sides to have played in the bottom half of the table won at the weekend, such are the close quarters that they find themselves in – four points now separate 17th up to 12th – there were plenty of positional shifts. Most prominently, Cagliari’s controversial-penalties-induced win over Cesena propelled them away from the drop-zone at the same time as seemingly confirming the Emilia-Romagna’s return to Serie B, whilst Fiorentina and Parma both dropped another position down.