OK, how to get off the mark writing for this here esteemed blog? Lets go with a big one. Who is the best team in the world right now? Yeah, why not:
OK, in my opinion… Udinese. Seriously, I think it might be Udinese.
Why? Well, Udinese currently sit third in what you could probably call Europe’s toughest domestic league, only two points behind Milan and Juventus and fresh from a four goal win over Sienna. ‘Serie A, the most competitive league in Europe, what is this? 1999?’ I hear you cry. Well as of right now Serie A is not only the league with the most teams in the Champions League last 16, but one where those teams that have made the last 16 are struggling to break out of the upper mid table, or in Inter’s case, were struggling to do anything at all until very recently.
Anyway, back on point, Udinese are up there in Serie A, and I doubt many remember, but they pushed Arsenal pretty close to the edge of the Champions League cliff. For a while back in September, until the point where penalties started to go awry, Udinese had Arsenal, the premiers last bastion of good football, staring down the long drop the the Euopa League group stage.
Somewhat understandably, last season everyone was salivating over Alexis Sanchez. He was at the center of a team that performed miracles all season long, eventually finishing 4th. Perhaps the most miraculous part of a glorious season was a 13 game unbeaten run from January to April, when the boys from the Friuli where playing some of the best football on the planet. Yeah, a thirteen game unbeaten run is great, but when it includes thumping champions Inter 3-1, then following that up with a 2-1 beating of Juventus , leading Milan 4-3 going into the third minute of injury time (it finished 4-4), and putting 7 (seven!) past Palermo in Scilly, you know something special is happening. And that is to say nothing of the football that earned them these scalps. In those 13 games Udinese scored 34 goals. For those of us whom a saturday morning will still never be complete without at least a small amount of Italian highlights, Udinese’s football was wonderful to behold. It was sensational time. For those three months the little team from Udine was playing some of the best football on the planet
But Udinese get up to this sort of thing on a fairly regular basis. An entirely rebuilt team is doing it right now. Admittedly not with the attacking flair of last season, which was sold on for a tidy 50 million euro, but with a team built around Samir Handinovic’s solidarity, a gorgeously fluid midfeild and Antonio Di Natale’s never ending ability to score goal after goal. Indeed, after last December’s top of the table clash between the Zebrette and Juventus finished 0-0, the general feeling was that Juve had done well to keep a clean sheet and come home with a point. The attacking talent may have been sold on but keeping Udinese out is still seen as an impressive achievement this season. Only the big two Milan clubs have scored more in the calendar year.
As always with Udinese this success is being achieved with home grown or exceptionally well scouted talent. Yes, they are a selling club, last season Sanchez moved up the footballing pyramid to Barcelona, with Christian Zapata and Gokhan Inler going mostly downish-sideways to Napoli and Villareal. But this migration seemingly has had little affect, and with 50 million euro to invest and ready made replacements such as Mauricio Isla coming through, the squad list is still the envy of many. They may have been helped by arguably one of Italy’s best players of the last 10 years, the aforementioned Mr Di Natale, staying heartwarmingly loyal, but the success of the last several years has come at an overwhelming positive net spend. Success that may be becoming easier to hold on too, if more players start to believe in Di Natale’s cautious whispers that ‘yes, perhaps we could challenge for the title’, and elect to stay at the club.
But surely the most remarkable part of the Zebrette’s success over the last few years, especially in todays footballing climate, is that is has been achieved without an oligarch or sugar-daddy, or a huge fanbase and world wide marketing. You never see anyone in the back of some far flung news report wearing an Udinese shirt, and if you did, it will probably have been one of the scouting staff. This is a team from a city of 100,000 souls located about as far east as you can go in Italy before hitting Slovenia, or roughly equal to a more isolated version of St Helens. They seem to prove that common-sense management, and beautiful football can go hand in hand.
Barcelona may play some wonderous football, but how much cash has gone into that project? How many pricily signed, highly paid players were cast off at a great cost to get them to where they are now. Hell, they cast off two of the last decades biggest strikers, along with umpteen million euros along the way.Yes they play amazing football at times, but it is kind of expected. When Udinese are pulling of equally mind bending football, for me it is far more joyous to behold. Late last winter was a sensational time, the plucky underdogs were at it once again. Impossible dreams of Scudetto glory were taking place. In the end it went a bit awry, but a 4th place finish lead them to Europe once again. It is better to try and fail right? Especially when you try like the Zebrette did for those few glorious months.
I accept, they may not be winning the Champions League any time soon, but if that is your come back, you are missing the point entirely. No one has occasionally but consistently shone like Udinese over the last few seasons. For a team from a city of 100,00 souls, to be, even briefly playing some of the worlds most sensational football for the most part of its own back is wonderful thing. You can keep your Barcelona thanks.