Unlikely lads dreaming of shock maiden title

The Serie A title race seemed set to boil down to a straight fight between the Milan giants until Milan picked up only a solitary point from their last two games, allowing Napoli back into the picture.

Updated: March 23, 2011 10:26 IST
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Rome: While Italy awaits with baited breath for the presumed 'title decider' between AC Milan and Inter Milan at the San Siro on April 2, an unfashionable little outfit continue to close in on their quest for history.

The Serie A title race seemed set to boil down to a straight fight between the Milan giants until Milan picked up only a solitary point from their last two games, allowing Napoli back into the picture.

The top three are separated by just three points and that could be one if Inter beat Milan and Napoli win when the league resumes following this weekend's international break.

And yet sitting quietly in fourth place, six points off the lead, and in the best form of anyone is a little team from close to the Slovenian border that has every right to also dream.

First of all, the statistics suggest Udinese have as much right as anyone to aspire to the title.

They are joint top scorers with Inter on 56 goals and their goal difference of +26 is bettered only by Milan (+29).

They are the only side unbeaten since the turn of the year with 10 wins and three draws from their 13 matches.

Only Inter have picked up more points but that from 15 games and they have lost two of those, including a 3-1 defeat at Udinese.

Francesco Guidolin's side have not conceded a goal in seven matches and their last three away from home have yielded 14 goals -- they beat Palermo 7-0, Cagliari 4-0 and Cesena 3-0.

And before that run they won 2-1 at Juventus, 4-2 at Genoa and drew 4-4 at Milan.

In fact it is only some little slips at home, drawing 1-1 with Bologna and 0-0 with Brescia, that have prevented them from being even closer to the top.

What's more, this is a team that began the season with four straight defeats and then a draw - since those first five matches, they have picked up more points than anyone else.

Those are the numbers but the how is even more eye-catching.

Inter are a side based on power with some consummate professionals such as Javier Zanetti and Maicon and the flair of Samuel Eto'o and Wesley Sneijder.

Milan are built around a formidable attack including Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho with bags of experience throughout the rest of the team such as Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

Napoli have a simple game-plan in trying to keep things tight and let their talented attacking triumvirate of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik settle things on their own.

For Udinese, it is even simpler. Their team is entirely based around nippy forward Antonio Di Natale and Chilean wing-wizard Alexis Sanchez, a target for many of Europe's big-guns.

Di Natale leads the Serie A scoring charts with 25 goals and Sanchez is in the top eight with 12 - the best of the rest of the team has managed just three.

Those two provide the flair and the goals while Ghana midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah gives steel to the midfield and Colombian full-back Pablo Armero is a Roberto Carlos-style threat down the left.

But one of the finds of the season has been French-born Morocco centre-back Mehdi Benatia, who grew up with Arsenal's Samir Nasri at Marseille, although he never played for the club.

He joined Udinese after two years in the French second division with Clermont but his reputation has soared ever since breaking into the team midway through the season.

Like all his team-mates, though, he refuses to get carried away by their success: "Just qualifying for Europe would be great. It would be difficult to make it to the Champions League, even if we have the quality."

Playing for a side whose best ever finish was third in 1998 such modesty is hardly surprising.

Udinese's most significant silverware was an Inter-Toto Cup in 2000 and an Anglo-Italian Cup in 1978, not to mention the Mitropa Cup (for the second division winners across Europe) two years later.

They may not be adding to those with a Serie A crown this season but at the very least they should be able to match their achievement in 2005 when a fourth-placed finish saw them qualify for their one and only Champions League season.

But there's no reason in their current form, why they cannot dream of more.

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