Provincial prospects v city contenders
If you take a cursory look through the Italian media, you'll believe scarcely anyone plays Serie A football besides Milan and Juventus, whose every move during their mini-training camp in Dubai is analysed with shocking and needless scrutiny (did Matri really finish a 100-yard dash behind Chiellini?).
Make the titanic effort to look beyond those two and there - sitting just behind the joint leaders in points, newspaper inches, TV minutes, hype and unconfirmed transfer rumours - are Udinese and Lazio. The former are a provincial side patronised by the mainstream media and the latter are a huge, metropolitan club whose main negative, even incurable weakness in the eyes of many, is not being Roma.
As befits people who, generally speaking, are down-to-earth and far from snobbish, the good guys at Udinese keep their feet firmly on the ground and look downwards instead of up to the sky. Despite accumulating wins and holding a place just behind the leaders of Serie A, Francesco Guidolin and his staff keep counting down the points they need to keep their side up instead of checking the fixtures to locate the dates of the potential title-deciders.
You'd think this humble attitude, which Udinese maintained for most of last season until they realised they would be booking their place in the Champions League preliminary round by finishing fourth, would be part of some posturing by now, with the club established among Italy's elite, but you get the same reaction every year, and it's perhaps part of the reason the Bianconeri are again challenging at the top.
An extreme example of a selling club constantly punching above their weight, they have perhaps outdone themselves this season. While conventional wisdom dictates you should not break up the spine of your side in one fell swoop, Udinese sold central defender Christian Zapata, central midfielder Gokhan Inler and striker Alexis Sanchez for a combined total of €50 million (rising to €60 million as part of the Sanchez deal). Yet Guidolin's side have not skipped a beat, as their second place, two points behind joint leaders Milan and Juventus, proves.
Zapata has been replaced by Danilo, who as a 27-year old does not really fit the "grab 'em young then sell them for a profit" type, while 22-year-old Romanian winger Gabriel Torje looks more like a typical Udinese signing. To be fair, though, Torje had already played more than 100 matches in his country's top flight and a handful for Romania before moving to Italy six months ago and could hardly be considered an unknown quantity.
The tactical outlook is not much different from last season, but the way results have been achieved has changed. Antonio Di Natale, with ten goals in 15 appearances, has scored exactly half of Udinese's league goals this season - a higher percentage than he had in 2010-11 when he had 28 of 65 (and Sanchez scoring 12 by his side). But overall Udinese have scored an average of 1.3 goals a game, down from 1.7 last season, and have conceded only 0.5, almost a third less than last season's 1.3. That's what happens when you keep ten clean sheets in 16 matches, which has included an away win at Inter and goalless draw with Juventus in the last game of 2011.
Di Natale has not found a scoring partner yet. Torje has not yet found the net despite starting the season in impressive fashion, with his running and ability to drive defenders out of position by changing places with Di Natale. Mauricio Isla and Dusan Basta have scored three apiece - both start to the right of Pinzi in Udinese's 3-5-1-1 formation, which has the ability to fold back to form a double layer to protect the defenders and spring forward in a flash to launch a counter-attack, providing Di Natale with his best opportunities. The goal he scored against Roma, playing off the shoulder of central defender Simon Kjaer before latching on to a pass from deep, was a perfect example of that.
Udinese look well equipped to keep challenging for a top-three place right until the end, but they will have to avoid injuries, and Di Natale in particular is all but irreplaceable. Antonio Floro Flores - like Di Natale, another player born in the Naples area who's been shining in a place far removed from his childhood playgrounds - showed last season on loan at Genoa that he has the right goalscoring ability. When he's played, though, Floro Flores has been used as a support striker and it's no coincidence his only goal so far was scored on only his second start as the main striker, in Di Natale's absence.
That Floro Flores strike came at Lazio, in a 2-2 draw that was nothing like the other matches Udinese had been involved in all season in that both sides scored with ease.
Which brings us to Lazio and their form so far. Oscillating between the sublime of an opening game in which they ran Milan ragged (but let a 2-0 lead slip away) to the ridiculous of a home defeat to Genoa only nine days later, in a sleepy Stadio Olimpico which does not seem half full even when it is. Lazio are not in the same class as Udinese - a side that defends tight then springs forward - and their style is quite different.
Coach Edy Reja earlier this season hinted at a possible resignation after fans booed his side and the players seemed affected: "I am 65. I do not need this. I can stay at home and be happy anyway." He has regularly changed tactics to accommodate the different sets of skills of his players, but little seems to work to full efficiency if Cristian Ledesma is not sitting in front of the defence with Christian Brocchi as his sidekick, or Hernanes is not linking play while moving across the front, and Miroslav Klose is not getting on the end of crosses.
The Germany striker has been a surprise in his first season in Serie A, not just for a goalscoring ability (perhaps magnified by the lowered standards of defending in the Serie A) but for the quality of many of his goals (not related to lax defending) and for his skill in providing great passes from a withdrawn position.
Sadly for Lazio, Djibril Cisse has not been able to find himself on the receiving end of any passes from Klose, or his other team-mates; the French forward's inability to score in the first half of the season has been one of the most disappointing developments in Serie A and has led to speculation he may leave soon. Cisse himself has played down any intention of moving, but has clearly been unhappy at the wide position Reja has been using him in as part of a 4-3-1-2 that often becomes a 4-2-3-1 with Klose as a lone striker.
Reja has stated his belief that Cisse is neither a central striker nor a winger but a "roving forward", who should be able to exploit the room Klose opens up by moving across the front and deeper. But this has not happened often enough and therein lies Lazio's biggest problem in trying to achieve a Champions League place next season, when only three Italian teams will be allowed to take part in the competition.
Oh, and Lazio may want to start winning matches against other top sides, too. They lost at home to Juventus, let that aforementioned 2-0 lead slip away at Milan and only managed to beat Roma - at last - among the other contenders. That's not enough.