Udinese, A Team of 'Disgraziati'

Udinese is out of the Europa League. Should it be a surprise? Not if you are a Serie A fan! Portuguese club Braga sent the ‘friulani’ out of the Champions League qualifiers back in August and then Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala beat them 2-0 on Friday morning to knock the small northern Italian side out of the Europa League group stage. Udinese has been an embarrassment to Italian soccer for over the last decade and the blame can’t be faulted just at the coaching staff or the players. Club patron Giampaolo Pozzo needs to take a look his team and himself. From next season onwards, the ‘friulani’ must be more competitive in Europe because they are currently a team of ‘disgraziati’!

If you are not Italian or an Italophile, ‘disgraziati’ is a term used to describe people who have disgraced themselves.  Based on their performances in Europe, the tag fits the Udinese players. For a team from the Serie A to lose to teams from Portugal, Switzerland and Russia is embarrassing. Braga has been a competitive team in the last few years and Anzhi is another Russian club with lots of cash being pumped into the club. When you finish third in Italy though, your club should be far more competitive. Udinese is a club from one the big leagues, not from a small league!

Francesco Guidolin wanted to resign as Udinese’s coach after his team’s loss to Braga but Pozzo insisted that he should stay on as coach. The former Vicenza and Palermo tactician has done what he possibly can with the players at his disposal and his squad is weakened every off-season. After all, we are talking about a man who took the ‘biancorossi’ to the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997/98, losing to eventual winners Chelsea. He has shown that he can get results in Europe with a club working on a budget.

Guidolin has a tough job and his players have shown that they can’t handle European football. Despite the lack of good performances by the players, Pozzo is the real blame for the under-achieving in European competitions. Constant changes are made to the roster every season and his coaches need to quickly fit the new players into the team. He buys players at a cheap price and sells them at a high price. A good business plan it may be but there are no signs of progression for the squad members that stay on. Pozzo looks content to see the books in balance yet the goals on the field stay the same. His players usually go on to be stars but he can’t continuously replace them just with unknowns. He needs to bring in some quality too.

Udinese has talent scouts and they look for talent from anywhere in the world, sometimes from the most obscure of places. These players come from either the small leagues in Europe, small clubs in the bigger leagues like the French Ligue 1 or German Bundesliga or they are genuine unknowns from less powerful football nations around the world. Let’s not also forget the odd Brazilian, usually not one who was not considered a prodigy or a future star. In the Serie A, using these players somehow works. In European competitions, how can these guys give Antonio Di Natale enough support? Even he struggles in big matches, missing the odd penalty for good measure. 

This is not the first time. It’s the same old story for the ‘friulani’. Elimination in the early rounds of the Europa League is common, even back in the UEFA Cup era.  Failure in the Champions League qualifiers this year isn’t a new thing either. Udinese lost to Arsenal last season. The 2005/06 season was the only time the ’friulani’ reached the group stage of the Champions League and their failure to reach the round of 16 can be blamed at Pozzo, who demanded that Vincenzo Iaquinta signed a contract extension. When the striker failed to do so, Pozzo froze him out of the squad until he signed it. 

Only in 2008/09 did Udinese produce a good run in Europe. In the final season of the old UEFA Cup, the ‘friulani’ reached the quarter-finals under the guidance of Pasquale Marino and goals from Fabio Quagliarella. Unfortunately they ran into German side Werder Bremen, who has a good record against Italian opposition and possessed Brazilian playmaker Diego, who went to Juventus in the following season. The ‘friulani’ lost 6-4 on aggregate but Werder did reach the final and Marino’s team did better than what other Udinese sides had done before or since.

Aside from the memories of 2008/09, Udinese’s displays in Europe have been a joke. Having said that, how can the team improve if the likes of Quagliarella, Gohkan Inler, Alexis Sanchez and Samir Handanovic aren’t maintained? Di Natale is a great player but is he somewhat threatened by their presence because they can be better players than him? Udinese won’t do better in Europe if its stars are replaced by the likes of Maicosuel, Heurtaux and Willians!

At the moment, pride needs to be restored to Italian football after ‘calciopoli’ and the World Cup 2010 disaster. There has been progress but ‘calcio’ fans can’t thank Udinese for that. If Udinese qualifies for European action next season, Pozzo must keep his stars. Italian football needs teams that will do it proud in front of European crowds. We must not tolerate displays from ‘disgraziati’ anymore.