In a four-way race where no-one seemed willing to lead, Rob Paton analyses how Udinese managed to take the prized third place for 2011-12.
Antonio Di Natale looked to be running out of space. Having just knocked the ball past a rooted Juan Pablo Carrizo, he faced an effort to catch up to it before it ran out of play and then to work an angle to finish, with Nicolas Spolli charging back in tandem. If he reached it, could he afford to take a second touch and invite the Argentine closer, and even Carrizo back into play? He’d already missed an easier chance to give the away side a lead, before 30 seconds was on the clock pulling wide from 10 yards out in a one-on-one.
Giving way to instinct, the answer was no, as a burst of pace from the 34-year-old was followed by a flash of brilliance. Reaching the ball with just two yards of turf left, Di Natale instantly jabbed at it with the outside of his right boot to not only dink it over a by-now-sliding Spolli, but also put enough spin on it to see it bounce at enough of an angle to roll over the line.
One of the season’s more graceful of goals, it was as inspired as it was important for Udinese. Facing the joint-third best defence in the League in Catania, the goal was not only Di Natale’s 80th since the start of 2009-10 – accounting for 47 per cent of Udinese’s total in that time – but also the one to ease Lazio, Inter and Napoli out of any contention for third spot. It was a performance that drew comparisons with that of Zico in 1984, who inspired the Zebrette to a 2-0 win away to the Sicilians in equal measure by leading from the front with inspiration.
The Zebrette went into the evening already in prime contention for the final Champions League qualification spot, aware that they needed just a draw from their trip to Sicily to render results from the chasing pack’s games irrelevant. Whilst Di Natale’s extraordinary contribution, both on the night it counted and in front of goal for the previous three seasons now, has turned likelihood into certainty, it is also important to note that even if the club appear to be beneficiaries of purely this and the other contenders’ recent downturn in form, Udinese secure third having conceded 11 goals less than their nearest rival for the position, and only two more than second place Milan.
Indeed, for their ability to score goals, the team still relied upon the back three of Mehdi Benatia, Danilo and Maurizio Domizzi to keep Catania out and on Samir Handanovic to pull off a sharp second-half save. Alejandro Gomez will also argue luck played its part, as he squirmed a first-half penalty wide. However, as the Gazzetta dello Sport remarked: “Beyond the magic of their stars, Udinese deserve their success simply because they played a match to the top of their capability. Guidolin may have been angry with Dusan Basta in the first half, but everything else worked.”
At this stage of the season when positions are decided, as much as the successful club celebrates, those who missed out are left wondering of what might have been. In this case, Lazio in particular will be tinged by regret to see Francesco Guidolin’s side again pip them to the post, having held a top three spot for 19 rounds of the season, including a run of consecutive matches from Weeks 26 to 34. However, they were undone by just three wins in that latter period, including a final three defeats from four that saw them eventually displaced. It was Napoli, rather than Udinese, who then came into prime contention and by Week 37 they only needed two wins from two to immediately return to the competition. Yet, they too collapsed when it was asked of them. Inter, meanwhile, had not been in the top three all season, but even they had an outside shot at qualification this final weekend and can also rightly be left wondering of an alternative table had Andrea Stramaccioni arrived earlier and revitalised a 24-goal Diego Milito sooner.
Yet by the same token, perhaps why Udinese finished the season with four consecutive wins to succeed where this trio did not, was because of their own feeling of regret, for not making it past the third round of qualifying for the Champions League at the very start of 2011-12. For picking up three points in Week 38 to make it a haul of 130 points from the last two seasons combined, Udinese have an immediate and deserved second chance even if, as Francesco Guidolin admits he is tired, more changes could take place before then.
What might have been will also be a thought to have crossed the minds of fans at Genoa and Lecce. Whilst the Salentini eventually finished six points adrift of safety as they lost to Chievo and the Grifone beat Palermo, both will be aware that since the point of Serse Cosmi’s arrival at his favoured club in December, they had picked up more points that five other sides to the end of the season, including Genoa.
It was also an emotional end to the season in Serie A for the number of notable names from the Italian top flight’s recent history to say goodbye. Week 38 of 2011-12 saw Alessandro Nesta, Marco Di Vaio, Gennaro Gattuso, Mark Van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf, Gianluca Zambrotta, Massimo Oddo, Kakha Kaladze, Pippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero all bid farewell to their clubs, and in most cases, Italian football too. To put into perspective the departure of this 10, they have amassed a total of 3,304 appearances in Serie A between them, have won a combined total of 94 major honours at club level whilst in Italy and have 687 international caps between them, with six of them also members of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning squad.
Perhaps pertinently, it was three from this unique group who have confirmed they will be playing on next season, albeit elsewhere, who stole the on-pitch show. Del Piero netted a neat goal from a clever finish for Juventus to help confirm their unbeaten League-winning campaign, whilst a lobbed pass from Seedorf set up Inzaghi for a spin, control and finish to win Milan’s match. Whilst the trio will have a combined age of 112 heading into 2012-13, they showed they may still have life yet to live in football.
Whilst winning nothing at club level for the first time since 2002-03 at Ajax, Zlatan Ibrahimovic finishes the season as Capocannoniere to become the first player in Italian top-flight history to do so with two different teams, having accomplished it with Inter in 2008-09.