A Look Ahead to Villarreal's Potential Opponents in Europe: Udinese

PALERMO, ITALY - FEBRUARY 27: Alexis Sanchez (Top) of Udinese celebrates with team-mates after scoring his team's fifth goal during the Serie A match between US Citta di Palermo and Udinese Calcio at Stadio Renzo Barbera on February 27, 2011 in Palermo, Italy. (Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)


Villarreal are beginning to think about the upcoming Champions League, and their potential opponents in the Playoff Qualifying Round.  Udinese Calcio is a definite potential opponent, as they will be unseeded due to their relatively low UEFA coefficient (73rd).  The other four potential opponents have not yet been determined, but will come out of the following ten teams:

Benfica (17) Dinamo Kyiv (30) Panathinaikos (32) FC Twente (49) Standard Liege (61)
Rubin Kazan (62) Zurich (103) OB (104) Vaslui (108)* Trabzonspor (135)

*We previously expected this to be Timisoara, but as it turns out, it was Vaslui who came out of the Romanian league.

The actual opponent will be determined by an August 5, 2011 draw following five two-legged match-ups between those 10 teams in the Third Qualifying Round.

This post will examine the challenge presented by Italian side Udinese, while follow-up posts will address some of the other potential opponents.

Udinese had a downright sparkling campaign in 2010-2011, from their 0-7 thrashing of Palermo to their 4th place finish and qualification for the Champions League Playoff.  Frequently recipients of praise similar to Villarreal in terms of an exciting, attacking style, Udinese managed a 20 win, 6 draw, 12 loss season after starting off a shocking 0-1-4 through their first five matches of Serie A. 

Most of Udinese's marked improvement over their previous season's 15th place finish came from a significant turnaround in goal differential, fueled by their two star forwards, Antonio di Natale and Alexis Sánchez.  In 2009-2010, they scored 54 goals, while allowing 59.  This season in Serie A, they scored 65 and only gave up 43, a goal-differential turnaround of +27!  They also had a +5 goal differential through only three matches in the Coppa Italia, but were unlucky to go out in the Round of 16 on penalties against Sampdoria.  And this was not a story of a team that only played well at home - they were dangerous whether in Udine or traveling around the boot, garnering twin +11 goal differentials both home and away.  The record on the road was not quite as impressive as their home form, but 9 wins and 2 draws out of 19 away matches is not bad.

The Squad

Udinese generally lined up in a 4-3-1-2 this term, most often with this lineup (and also with Mauricio Isla slotting in either in midfield or at left or right back):

Samir Handanoviç

Pablo Armero - Maurizio Domizzi - Christian Zapata - Mehdi Benatia

Giampiero Pinzi - Gökhan Inler - Kwadwo Asamoah

Almen Abdi

Antonio di Natale - Alexis Sánchez

The goals flowed from Sánchez and di Natale throughout the season.  Di Natale especially was in stunning form throughout, scoring an amazing 28 goals in 36 appearances.  Sánchez managed 12 more for the Zebrettes, thus totaling 40 of their 65 team goals.  There was a drop-off after their top two targets, though, with Germán Denis being the next highest scorer, with 4 goals in 25 appearances. 

Unfortunately for the Bianconeri (and for those of us trying to look ahead and see what the future holds for the club), Udinese 2011-2012 is an enigma, because they are expected to be a drastically different team well before the Champions League rolls around in August.   Central to that enigma is the future of Alexis Sánchez, a player wanted all over Europe.  As The Guardian put it in naming him player of the year in Italy, it was Sánchez' "pace, vision, movement and footwork [that] played a huge part in the transformation of the Friuliani from relegation battlers last season to fourth-placed finishers this time around."  Chances are he will be playing elsewhere next year, and as a result, Udinese will look very different.  Specifically, the offensive numbers are likely to suffer if the playmaker finds his way to Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City, Inter Milan, Chelsea, or any of the other overstuffed clubs pining away for him.

Interestingly, Alexis Sánchez could a player who could have quite an influence on Villarreal, and on a Villarreal-Udinese match up if that were to come to pass, no matter what happens to him, even if he isn't lining up in the black and white stripes come late summer.  The reason?  Barcelona seem determined to sign either Sánchez or our own Giuseppe Rossi, and if Sánchez does not end up in the blaugrana, then, painfully to those who regularly stop by this site, Rossi very well might.

One player that no one is expecting Udinese to lose is two-time defending Serie A Golden Boot winner di Natale.  Coming off a 2009-2010 season in which di Natale knocked in 29 with those gilded boots, he only managed a paltry 28 in 2010-2011.  He is out of contract in 2012, but from what I can tell, there have not been any rumors of him seeking greener pastures this summer.  The only thing that might slow him down, considering his consistency over the last few years, is the fact that he is turning 34 in the fall.

Assuming Sanchez does leave, they are going to have to replace him with someone, although it isn't yet clear who that would be.  Possible fixes include Barcelona's Bojan, in the same sort of swap-plus-money deal that Barca have been rumored to offer Villarreal for Rossi.

Udinese's most well-known midfielder is certainly Swiss international Gökhan Inler, but they have a strong group of midfielders that link up splendidly with the upfront targets, as was demonstrated last year by the impressive goal total the club accumulated.  Kwadwo Asamoah has been stellar, the 22-year old being described as Udinese's "most creative player."   Inler, meanwhile, has become one of the most respected defensive midfielders in the game, and is a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the pitch.

You will notice a theme here, but Udinese are very concerned about losing a big chunk of their midfield as well. Asamoah has been linked regularly to both Inter Milan and AC Milan, as well as Manchester City, among others.  Inler seems destined to move to another Italian club - perhaps Napoli or Juventus - but is currently waiting to finish up holiday before making a decision on his future.

Udinese's defense dramatically improved in the 2010-2011 season.  Central defenders Christian Zapata and Maurizio Domizzi formed a strong partnership in the middle, and as described above, the goals-against numbers dropped from 59 down to 43. 

Udinese also manages to squeeze goals out of their back line.  Zapata scored 2, Benatia managed 3, and Armero and Domizzi each added another 2 goals.  It helps that they have height in the back.  Benatia is 6'2", and Zapata and Domizzi are 6'1" - and we all know that height and set-pieces do not go well together for Villarreal's back line.

In defense, there is another Villarreal connection, as central defender Christian Zapata has been linked to the Yellow Submarine.  I would quite happily see him lining up in yellow rather than black and white if Villarreal are drawn against the Bianconeri!

Finally, Udinese is also in danger of losing its starting goalkeeper, as Samir Handanoviç has been linked away to Inter and Napoli.  That would be a big loss for the club.  Handanoviç stopped 73 percent of the shots he faced last year, and their backup keeper, Emanuele Belardi, only made 4 appearances in all competitions in 2010-2011, and only 9, I believe, since the beginning of 2007-2008.  At age 33 he is experienced, but not necessarily the person you want to hand the reigns of the Champions League to.

Analysis

So presently it is very difficult to know what to expect from Udinese next term. We really just do not know who is going to be in their squad when the Champions League Playoff starts.  If they lost Sánchez, Inler, Asamoah, Zapata, and Handanoviç, they would not be remotely the same club that finished 4th in Serie A this year.  Of course those losses would mean a nice transfer kitty, but I don't see Udinese as the type of club that would be able to take a big pot of money and go get anyone they wanted - that is really the problem they face now, as quality players look to step up to the "big" clubs, a nemesis Villarreal has often faced.

While I would generally like to see them do well, as they play quality football, I have a hard time expecting that.  Their history over the last few years just does not show a team that is ready for consistency.  They are generally a mid-table Serie A team going back to 2005-2006, finishing 15th ('09-'10), 7th ('08-'09), 7th ('07-'08), 10th ('06-'07), and 11th ('05-'06).

That being said, their one other Champions League appearance was not too different from this go 'round.  In 2004-2005, they finished 4th in Serie A and had to compete in the Playoff round to make it into the group stages.  They beat Sporting of Portugal in the playoff, but only managed to finish third in their group (Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Barcelona).

So whether or not Udinese would be the pick of the potential opponents really revolves around the next few weeks and what, if any, deals get done around their stars.  While Villarreal is nervously watching the transfer market and praying that Rossi, Borja, Cazorla, and other stay put, Udinese must be petrified at the possibilities.

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