One of the season's best games involving an Italian team took place last Tuesday in Athens' Spyros Stadium. Losing 1-0 to Panathinaikos in a downpour and with their hopes of Champions League progress fading fast, Udinese scored twice in the last nine minutes, the winner a thunderous effort from outside the area by Vincent Candela, and kept things interesting at least until their last group match at home to Barcelona, in which they need a draw, on December 7.
Interesting, by the way, is an adjective that could have been applied to almost any day so far this season, which will go down in history for Udinese's first appearance in Europe's top competition.
After last year's fourth place in the Serie A, coach Luciano Spalletti could not resist the call of Roma and bolted, after an acrimonious exchange of words with major shareholder Giampaolo Pozzo. In came 48-year-old Serse Cosmi, the irascible manager who had steered Genoa to promotion from Serie B only for owner Enrico Preziosi to make a spitting mess of it by attempting to bribe Venezia and cause his clubs' demotion to the Serie C1 by the Football Federation as a punishment.
Udinese had built their success on a side led by David Pizarro in the middle of the park, with a strong contribution by, among others, Marek Jankulovski on the left. With those two, along with defender Per Kroldrup, moving elsewhere during the summer, Cosmi was confronted with the task of keeping the team near the top while at the same time moulding it both in his own image and in such a manner that would lessen the void left by the departure of three starters.
With no one in the squad resembling Pizarro's style of close control and quick passing over both short and long distances, which had been a blessing for Spalletti's 3-4-3, Cosmi had to pick a different tactical shape. A long-time proponent of the 3-5-2, Cosmi has used his favourite formation a lot but has also gone with a 3-4-1-2, a 3-4-3 and a 4-4-2, although the latter resulted in a 5-1 defeat at Milan - the low point of Udinese's season so far - coming only three days after the side had conceded four in Bremen, losing 4-3 after coming back from 0-3 down.
But the 3-5-2 means one of the regular attacking trio of Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Di Natale and David Di Michele, who scored 35 goals between them last year, will be left on the bench and things came to a head a few seconds after Di Natale scored Udinese's equaliser against Werder Bremen in the Champions League.
As a way of celebrating, Di Natale, who'd come on in the 76 minute, pointed his finger at Cosmi and swore at him, for having had the audacity to keep him on the bench for so long. Not half an hour earlier, Di Michele had refused to acknowledge Cosmi's high five after being taken off and had hurled his jacket at the bench in disgust. The next day, after a closed-door meeting with the directors, the two 'DIs' apologised to the whole world and brought Cosmi a bouquet of flowers - we Italians are romantic people, aren't we? But that was only one of the controversies that have haunted Udinese this year.
A model club in many ways, with the added advantage of little pressure by the fans in Udine, in Italy's northeast corner, Udinese have managed to stay afloat for a long time by developing young players and selling them on for a huge profit. Their scouting department has reached near mythical status, with coordinator (and former player) Manuel Gerolin and his staff watching between 800 and 1400 (I warned you about the mythical part) videos and dvds of matches from leagues all over the world each year, then giving a second look to the players who deserve it.
Udinese, reportedly, were the first Italian club to set their eyes upon a strapping young man by the name of Adriano at the time when the current Inter star was beginning his career with Flamengo, but the asking price scared Pozzo away, and that was one deal that never came to fruition for Udinese.
So, what happens when sand gets into wheels of this well-oiled 'discover, develop and sell on' machine? Back in September Udinese suspended Iaquinta indefinitely because: 'he does not see himself in the (long-term) Udinese project', to quote the club. In other words, Iaquinta had rejected the club's offer to extend his contract until 2010, and had been punished for that. Interestingly, his current deal would not expire until 2007, but Udinese felt they had to take extreme measures in order to show strength. Iaquinta was left out of the home match against Juventus - which the visitors won 1-0 - then after a few tense meetings signed an extension to 2010 a few days later, increasing his salary from half a million euros to €1.25 million a year.
When you add this to the discomfort of the other strikers at being taken off, it is easy to understand why Cosmi has had his hands full so far.
The defence, who lost central defender Cesare Natali to an ankle fracture in September, has let in too many goals, especially away from home; Candela has been doing a decent job on the left, while the midfield partnership of Christian Obodo and Sulley Muntari has provided steel and strong running, but, again, neither has Pizarro's playmaking skill so Udinese have had to resort to quick, early balls up front for Iaquinta, with Di Michele or Di Natale running into space to take advantage of the Italian international's knockdown.
Iaquinta is also one of the fastest big men around and he can also move in space, engaging a couple of defenders which in turn means his teammates may get a better look at goal. Cosmi has also experimented with a three-pronged attack with no target man and three quick, mobile forwards, but his 'Chinese infantry' (as he put it) of Di Natale, Di Michele and Barreto, a young Brazilian who was instrumental in Treviso's good Serie B season last year, did not produce the results against Messina. It was not until big man Rossini came in that Udinese started making dents into the armour of visiting Messina.
On Sunday, only five days after Udinese's comeback win against Panathinaikos, I went to take their pulse at the away match at Parma. Interestingly, Udinese trail only Juventus, Milan and Inter in away wins in Serie A, a testimony to their attacking tradition and perhaps the fact their home ground, the Friuli, has little atmosphere and does not help create a strong 12th man effect, which in turn creates a more balanced approach both home and away.
Whatever doubts one has about the quality of Udinese's style, they showed little fatigue from their midweek clash in Athens, matching Parma - who are in a worrying situation and have now lost 7 out of 10 matches - stride for stride when the hosts tried to push the tempo and struck at that most crucial of times, injury time in the first half.
Despite having fallen over a few times because of bad footing on a soggy pitch, and sporting a gravity-defying mini-afro, the diminutive Barreto, selected by Cosmi ahead of Di Natale, who'd been left home for reacting badly to being taken off in Athens, managed to stay upright long enough to slot home Iaquinta's knockdown from just inside the penalty area. Barreto struck again a minute after half time from another typical Udinese move, when a long ball was headed on by Iaquinta then Mauri and fell into his path. A close control and an outstretched leg later, the ball was hitting the roof of the Parma net and the game was over, despite Corradi's late, late header.
An away win with little in terms of entertainment, with some highly effective early passing, careful defending and constant movement, which is a minimum requirement whenever you play for Cosmi, whom I saw more than a few times, even with his side running rings around Parma, punching the side of the bench in frustration when one of his players treated the ball carelessly.
All of which is exactly what you would expect from this year's Udinese, with their potential for entertaining, direct football and this season's mix of promise and turmoil, which Barreto's well taken goals and Di Natale's banishment again came to symbolize.
The Stadio Friuli will be a near sell-out for the visit of Barcelona in a week's time, and qualification to the knockout phase would be another huge step for the black-and-whites, especially after their stuttering start to the season which sees them in seventh place.
But for all their intriguing array of qualities, perhaps I should have known better than to risk my lungs for Udinese at Parma: throughout the full 90 minutes plus half time and time added on, the guy sitting next to me in press box of the Stadio Tardini took the words 'chain-smoking' to levels never seen before in the (un)civilised world, and it's good Udinese were playing in an all-black kit: had they worn their customary black-and-white stripes with white shorts I'd never have been able to see any of their players through the cloud of toxic smoke this fellow was puffing out of his nostrils.
As for Parma, thank God for the black cross on the front of their jerseys, It helped me see them from within my own little cloud but apparently did not contribute a lot to Parma players seeing each other, as the plethora of misplaced passes and errant crosses proved.