Udinese catching Arsenal at right time
After visiting his 'small apartment' in the Côte d'Azur and exploring Provence, Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin spent the rest of his summer holidays in Scotland. "Splendid landscape," he said, "but the weather was terrible."
Had Guidolin picked up a local newspaper, he would have perhaps learned that Steve McClaren had landed one of the jobs he covets most. Last season, the son of a watchmaker defined himself as a 'niche tactician', accepting that the chance to manage a big club had perhaps past him by.
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He told La Gazzetta dello Sport that if Udinese were to ever get fed up of him, rather than wait for a call from Milan (the team he supported as a boy), Guidolin would instead relish the challenge of resurrecting a club like Nottingham Forest.
For now, Guidolin has to content himself with the prospect of working in the Champions League, and not the Championship, a trade-off he can probably live with, as Udinese take on Arsenal on Tuesday for a place in the group stages.
"I wanted us to avoid Arsenal and we got Arsenal," he confessed. "It will be very tough. We start as underdogs, but I am convinced that the lads will give their maximum, actually they will give something extra seeing that for many of them, including myself, an unrepeatable opportunity lies in front of them."
Lest we forget, this is Udinese's reward for playing the best football in Serie A last season. Not even during Zico's short spell at the club in the early `80s, when a record 26,611 season tickets were sold, had the fans at the Friuli seen their team perform with such swashbuckling style.
"We play the best football in Italy," insisted Udinese's proud owner Giampaolo Pozzo. "We were an advertisement."
Udinese's good PR came in the form of a club record 14 games unbeaten between December and April, which included a 4-4 draw at champions-to-be Milan, the scalps of Juventus and Inter, and a 7-0 victory at Palermo, Serie A's biggest away win since 1955.
Olympique Lyonnais have become Champions League mainstays during president Jean-Michel Aulus's reign, a stretch that reached an apex with a semifinal appearance in the 2009-10 competition. While that run saw some fortune fall at the boots of Lisandro Lopez, Hugo Lloris and friends, fortune neglected OL this season, with Les Gones in danger of missing out on Champions League-proper for the first time this century.
That's because new manager Remi Garde has seen his side drawn against Russia's Rubin Kazan, one of the least enjoyable teams to matchup against in Europe. The Tatars acquired a giant killer's reputation after a 2009 win at the Nou Camp, part of a four match (over two tournaments) stretch that saw Rubin quasi-successfully go toe-to-toe with the world's best. Given Rubin comes from a league that's never seen a team past the final eight of this competition, they've transcended the more glamorous Zenit and CSKA to become a symbol of Russian Champions League potential.
That symbol's been erected on tight, patient defending and a uncommonly efficient counterattack, one run by Christian Noboa and Bibras Natcho, completed by the likes of Alan Kasaev, Gokdeniz Karadeniz, and Alexander Ryazantsev.
For a supposed lesser amongst giants, Rubin gives manager Kurban Berdyev a number of attacking options. Nonetheless, on Tuesday, expect Rubin to play reverentially, a stance Lyon has come to expect from their opponents.
All of which brings us back to the advantages gained from OL's past. Their experience breaking down bunkered sides - combined with the lessons won from 12 straight champions league appearances - may provide enough of an edge to leap this Tatar hurdle.
-- Richard Farley, FOXSoccer.com editor
And to think that Udinese managed to lose their first four games last season. At the time, Pozzo, a man keenly aware of Guidolin's passion for the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, reminded his coach that should he want to, he could always go back to being an amateur cyclist climbing Alpe d'Huez or the Zoncolan in his spare time.
That wouldn't be necessary. Had the campaign started in week five, Udinese would have finished second. So how did Guidolin manage to turn it around? Reflecting on his first stint in charge of the club, he found inspiration by going back to the future.
In 1998, he’d dauntingly inherited a team that had made history under Alberto Zaccheroni. Udinese had finished third in Serie A the previous season. Oliver Bierhoff, the hero of Germany's triumph at Euro 96, was the reigning Capocannoniere with 27 goals, but he had also left with Zac for Milan. The system was 3-4-3. "Changing it would have been heresy," Guidolin said.
Up until that point, he had been a disciple of Arrigo Sacchi and the high-pressing game synonymous with Milan based around a 4-4-2. "The three-man defense was sacred at Udinese. In training I realized that the team played from memory and that I must adapt while adding something of my own."
Rather than try to fix what wasn't broken, Guidolin tinkered, withdrawing one of the strikers, typically Paolo Poggi or Roberto Sosa, and introducing a trequartista, namely Tomas Locatelli.
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It worked, as Udinese finished in sixth place. Another of their strikers, this time Márcio Amoroso, was top scorer in Serie A. So 11 years later, Guidolin repeated and elaborated upon the trick. Locatelli's place had been taken by Alexis Sánchez, and that of Amoroso by Totò Di Natale.
After their success, it perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that the Zebrette have lost some of their most distinguished stripes this summer. Sánchez departed for Barcelona, Gökhan Inler for Napoli and Cristian Zapata for Villarreal.
While fans would have preferred to see the players stay, it's worth bearing in mind that after buying the trio for a total of just $6.5 million, the prospect of then selling them for a total of $89 million (a figure which includes bonus payments and other add-ons) simply represented too good a business opportunity to turn down.
This isn't anything new. This is the Udinese way. Remember how the club bought Amoroso in 1996 for practically nothing and then sold the striker to Parma in 1999 for $47 million. Or how Stefano Fiore arrived in Friuli as part of that deal, initially on loan with an option to buy set at $7 million. Udinese exercised it, then sold the midfielder to Lazio in 2001 for $40 million.
Asked to reveal the club's secrets, one of Udinese's transfer consultants Stefano Antonelli told Il Corriere dello Sport: "It starts from an intuition, accompanied by the courage to sign certain players and a predisposition to invest.
"The difference is in the way in which foreign players are managed when they arrive in Italy. There is the capacity to be patient in Udine, to shape these players as footballers and as people.
"The club doesn't sell everyone. We keep a spine to compete in the league. Sánchez and Inler could have gone in January, but we wanted to get into the preliminaries of the Champions League and that happened."
Trust in the Pozzo family model is high. "I know my club's guidelines on the transfer market," Guidolin explained. "I am wedded to the project. We are different with respect to May."
With Sánchez gone, and a replacement yet to be found, Guidolin intends to use Di Natale as a lone striker in a 4-1-4-1 against Arsenal.
"We are trying new solutions," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Last season we ended up in a 3-5-1-1. I will do the same this year. A three-man defense or a four-man defense, we're training with both.
"We face Arsenal, not a small club, and we must adapt. We'll make some adjustments. I can't go into details. Let's say that we must care a lot about being aggressive when out of possession and in recovering the ball."
WHERE ARSENAL'S WEAK
On the evidence, Arsenal are going to struggle against a Udinese side that matches up against them quite well. The Gunners will be without Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri for the first leg Tuesday in London - both men are suspended - and had another gaping hole blown in them on Sunday with the transfer of captain Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona.
Against Newcastle in the season opener, Arsenal looked surprisingly solid on defense, albeit against a mid-tier team playing two forwards that have yet to fall into sync with one another. Since that has been an historic weak spot for the Londoners, seeing the back four efficiently clean things up must have brought their fans some joy.
Where the Gunners are thin is in midfield, for obvious reasons. Tomas Rosicky and Andrei Arshavin were both quite poor Saturday despite solid work from Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey. The team lacks depth here, and they are going to continue to struggle to provide quality service.
Arsenal’s fluid passing game is disguising another fatal flaw: they cannot reliably score goals. Gervinho looks a talent of the future, not the present, and until Theo Walcott entered, Arsenal lacked any width and pace. While fans may laugh at the idea of buying yet another striker, the fact is, this team needs one — along with at least three other key players.
-- Jamie Trecker, FOXSoccer.com senior writer
Central to that game plan will be Mauricio Isla and Pablo Armero, through whom Udinese counter-attacked down the flanks so tenaciously last season.
Zapata's replacement Danilo, a slower but surer center-back signed from Palmeiras with an impressive goal scoring record, is also worth keeping an eye out for on Tuesday, even if Udinese's main threat will be posed by Di Natale, Serie A's Capocannoniere for the second year running, a feat last achieved by Beppe Signori at Lazio in the early `90s.
"It's like going to New York for the first time," Pozzo declared after the draw for the preliminary round. But if Arsenal really are to be compared with the Big Apple then something rotten lies therein, as the core is in the process of being removed.
The 'worst situation' Arsène Wenger described to reporters prior to Arsenal's pre-season tour of the Far East earlier this summer - namely that of losing captain Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri - looks about to become a disconcerting reality.
Nasri is suspended for the first leg. So too is Robin van Persie, while Wenger himself also serves a touchline ban.
Udinese are still in pre-season of course, and are by the own admission behind their opponents in terms of preparation, but there is a sense that it's as good a time as any to catch Arsenal, who are at home to Liverpool before the second leg and then away to Manchester United four days later.
In the meantime, Guidolin has been leafing through the pages of Fever Pitch, the classic book written by Nick Hornby about the passion an Arsenal fan feels for his team.
"I bought it," he said. "I started to read it and abandoned it. I haven't finished it. Does that mean something?"
Maybe. Maybe not.
But what narrative could be more gripping to Guidolin right now than knocking Arsenal out of the Champions League and writing another chapter in Udinese’s history?
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.