As they prepare to battle Braga in the Champions League play-off round, Udinese minds will be flashing back to one year ago. Doubts centred on their now-customary policy of selling their star players. Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata all departed after the Friulani’s impressive 2010-11 fourth-place finish.
Udinese were brave and at times over 180 minutes the better side against Arsenal in the corresponding qualifier, but ultimately dropped into the Europa League. With one less Champions League spot on offer last season they were not expected to be in the reckoning, especially considering their summer transfer activity.
Yet Francesco Guidolin did guide his side into the Champions League last May and again the club enacted their transfer strategy. This is after all a policy which has more often than not taken provincial Udinese to European competitions since their UEFA Cup appearance in 1997-98.
This summer Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla left for Juventus and Samir Handanovic joined Inter. Additionally, Gabriel Torje and Antonio Floro Flores moved to feeder club Granada, Michele Pazienza went back to Juventus and Almen Abdi joined the newly acquired Pozzo family club, Watford. Experienced defender Damiano Ferronetti was allowed to leave on a free transfer.
Yet the revolving door at the Stadio Friuli is always in operation. The departed stars are replaced with potential ones. The system angers some fans, but Udinese’s scout network is renowned for its ability to unearth new talent. On this, Guidolin was bullish ahead of the Braga showdown, stating: “We must believe we've built a proper team in these 40 days.”
The most exciting addition is Colombian livewire Luis Muriel. His seven goals on loan at Lecce last season earned plaudits, as did his dribbling ability and pace. Muriel is first choice to start alongside Antonio Di Natale in attack this campaign.
Another with Serie A experience is goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic. The 26-year-old featured for Siena on loan last term where he made 18 appearances and kept five clean sheets. An agile goalkeeper, he has been preferred in pre-season to fellow signings Wojciech Pawlowski and Venezuelan international Rafael Romo.
Marco Faraoni moved the opposite direction to Handanovic and could operate as a wing-back in the usual 3-5-1-1 formation. In making his Serie A debut last season, Faraoni showed the poise and ability which has him pinned as one to watch in the upcoming years.
The Udinese scout system takes regular stops to South America and this season is no different. Four Brazilians have joined – Willians, Maicosuel, Allan and Gabriel Silva, who signed in January and featured for Novara last campaign. The former duo are 26-year-olds, the latter pair 21 and part of Brazil’s 2011 Under-20 World Championship winning team.
Willians is described by the club’s website as a ‘pitbull’ defensive midfielder, while fellow midfielder Maicosuel – who has past European experience at German club Hoffenheim – is blessed with more of a deft touch. Allan is a versatile player able to play in defence or midfield, while Silva is described by the club as a ‘little gem’ and most comfortable as a left-back. In addition are other new arrivals such as Thomas Heurtrax and Jean-Alain Fanchone, players expected to play a bit-part role.
Udinese can also rely on two constants of their recent success in Di Natale and Guidolin. They are back for another year, even if the captain admitted both wanted to quit at the end of last season. Furthermore, Pablo Armero, Mehdi Benatia, Danilo and Dusan Basta are well-versed in the Guidolin system and now team leaders.
The Coach will go into the campaign with low expectations as always. He and the players transmit an air of caution about their chances, claiming to think only of the mythical 40-point barrier as their foremost target. While a large portion of Udinese’s squad is chopped and changed each season, Guidolin is a clever tactician. It would not be a surprise if he masterminded another European finish this season.