Champions League: Udine-asy Or A Quick Exit
European football returns tonight, no doubt tomorrow’s papers will be covered in column inches about how we did or did not miss Cesc. And Nasri. And Wilshere. And van Persie. Big Al’s here with his preview of this tie…
Arsenal face an unusual test in this season’s Champions League qualifying round; as opposed to previous years we’ll be facing a team from a top European league. Also unprecedented is that many commentators expect us to lose this tie. Let’s see if it’s all wishful thinking on their part.
So who are Udinese?
Under any other circumstances Udinese would be an easy club to admire. They’ve achieved relative success in recent seasons at the expense of clubs with far more money and influence. They try to play with an attacking aggression and style that is often at odds with the rest of Serie A, where defensive tactics still prevail.
As the name tells you, they hail from the northeastern city of Udine, not far from the border with Slovenia and equidistant to the Adriatic and the Alps, which loom in the distance to the north and east. The home stadium is Stadio Friuli, which holds just over 40,000, standing and seating, with all but one stand open to the elements.
The club produced Dino Zoff in the 1960s, and back in the early 80s they brought Brazilian star Zico to Europe for a couple of seasons, but their modern era truly began with their acquisition by current owner Giampaolo Pozzo, who took the reins in 1986, Udinese languishing in Serie B on the back of a betting scandal. Almost straight away he set a template that the club continues to follow – smart scouting, mostly in South America, but also across Europe and Africa; the discovery of future stars, with lucrative sales sowing the next crop.
Here’s a quick run through some of the talents nurtured under Pozzo’s time in charge: Oliver Bierhoff, Nestor Sensini, Abel Balbo, Thomas Helveg, David Pizzaro, Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari, Asamoah Gyan and most recently, Christián Zapata, Gökhan Inler and Alexis Sánchez.
What about this current team?
What’s immediately striking is their 3-5-2 formation, which hasn’t been seen in England since Scatman John was in the charts. They play with three central defenders, and a midfield adept at both defending in numbers and swarming forward in attack. Key to their style are the pacey wing-backs – Colombian Pablo Armero on the left and Chilean Mauricio Isla on the right.
The key central midfielder is Kwadwo Asamoah; a tough left-footer, strong in the tackle but blessed with some vision and a decent passing range. Asamoah started 37 games for Udinese last season, more than any other player. Alongside him is Giampiero Pinzi, the side’s joint top assister and a regular starter in midfield for much of the last 10 years.
The main man up front, and perhaps Udinese’s best player in any position, is 33-year-old Antonio di Natale. He has been top scorer in the league for the last two seasons. At only 5ft 7in you’d call him “compact”, but he’s creative, strong, agile, retains much of his pace, especially over 10 yards, and packs a wallop with his right boot.
In line with the Pozzo tradition, this current team has been recruited from all over. Moroccan centre-half, Mehdi Benatia was an ever-present last season and arrived at the club in 2010 from Ligue 2 Clermont. Pablo Armero also joined last summer, from Palmeiras in Brazil.
There are also some newcomers – Ivorian midfielder Thierry Doubai from Young Boys in Switzerland, and defenders, Danilo and Neuton have just arrived from the Brazilian league. Another new face is u21 winger and playmaker, Diego Fabbrini, formerly of Empoli and regarded as a bright prospect, but with big shoes to fill.
Indeed, these signings are charged with the difficult task of picking up the mantle from Zapata, Inler and Sánchez, three of Udinese’s most important performers last season, and all sold on in recent weeks.
And the last time the club qualified for the Champions League, in 2005, they could only muster a pre-Calciopoli 13th place in Serie A the following season. Since fourth place was widely considered overachievement in the last campaign, Udinese might well slip down the table again for couple of years until the new players step up.
So, what to expect?
A tactically astute, technical team, with pace on the flanks and a deadly if ageing goal scorer. But it’s also a side that could well be weaker than last season in three different parts of the pitch. It’s not naive to suggest that if ever there were a time to play Udinese in the last 18 months, it is right now.
And what about us?
Newcastle was a promising if unspectacular start. As a team we defended smartly, and individually our centre-backs coped with the various challenges posed by Ameobi, Ba and Obertan.
Our midfield was disciplined and kept possession, while affording the opposition little time on the ball. Rosicky was perhaps our best performer here, diligently getting into space and maintaining the tempo. Song sat deep to shield the backline, contributing only to the early build up of attacks. At home he’s likely to be more adventurous.
Gervinho in particular was impressive going forward, injecting pace and directness into our attack, befuddling defenders all the while. What was missing was the final pass, but this is down to unfamiliarity, and can be remedied easily enough.
Tonight we’ll be without Robin van Persie and possibly Wilshere, but both will most likely be ready for the crucial away leg, together with any signings made between now and then. At any rate our team will be packed with players offering years of experience in continental and full international competition.
In the end, just as the gravity of our predicament has been overstated, the quality of the opposition has also been slightly exaggerated. The group stage will be in sight if we replicate the weekend’s performance, finding only a little more composure in their area.
But the players cannot do it without us. As fans, noisy, positive support is all we can offer. I know that it’s always a visceral experience, but if you feel frustrated at any moment tonight please stop and think about how your reaction will play to others.
The eyes of the world will be on us tonight; it’s time to show them who we really are.
Posted on August 16, 2011, in Arsenal, Champions League, Football, Premier League, Premiership, Soccer, Transfer Gossip and tagged Arsenal, Champions League, Football, Premier League, Soccer. Bookmark the permalink. 598 Comments.