How high can Udinese go? Arguably playing the most beautiful football in Italy at present, Le Zebrette (the little Zebras) began their Serie A campaign in the worst possible manner, losing four league games on the bounce, including a 4-0 loss at home to Juventus in September. Since then manager Francesco Guidolin has worked wonders with his squad and now Udinese are fighting toe-to-toe with the finest teams in the country for a spot in next season’s Champions League. 2011 may still be relatively young, but Udinese have shown a revived spirit and put together a run of form, both at home at the Friuli in Udine, and away from their fortress, which is the talk of the peninsula.

Guidolin likes to play an aggressive 3-5-1-1 system and Udinese’s width is of great importance to their coach. The former Parma boss can call upon the highly rated Samir Handanovic between the sticks, and the Slovenian, heavily linked with English side Arsenal in the summer, is just a signpost to Udinese’s quality. A three-man defensive line stands in front of the keeper, with Moroccan Mehdi Benatia on the right, 24-year-old Colombian Cristian Zapata in the centre and Maurizio Domizzi on the left. All three are more than competent defenders; they are skilful and, especially Domizzi and Zapata, willing to get forward whenever possible; the duo have popped up with important goals for the Bianconeri.


Yet Udinese are just as strong, if not stronger in midfield, usually playing with five men. Swiss international Gokhan Inler sits as a "regista" in front of the back three, but perhaps the most vital players to Guidolin’s system are those on the flanks – Colombian Pablo Armero on the left and Chilean Pablo Isla on the right. Ghanian Kwadwo Asamoah and Giampiero Pinzi sit in the centre; Pinzi has been reborn in Udine after a poor spell in Verona with Chievo.

Le Zebrette can boast top draw performers up front too. Chilean phenomenon Alexis Sanchez provides the perfect connection between Udinese’s midfield and attack. Chased by European giants Chelsea and Inter, the 22-year-old has pledged to continue growing in Udine, much to the delight of the club’s faithful, yet big-money bids will surely arrive in the summer. Sanchez is fast and tricky, with a superb footballing brain. While the Chilean clearly is just starting out on his adventure, his partner in crime is coming to the end of a long and distinguished spell in the Italian game. Toto Di Natale may be 33 years old now, yet like a fine wine he is improving with age – last season Di Natale finished as Serie A top scorer. In 2010/11 the goals have not stopped flowing either, with Di Natale boasting 16 league strikes to his name at the time of writing. Last summer, the Neapolitan-born hitman came close to moving to Juventus, but Udinese’s fans protested loudly against his joining the Old Lady and, in the end, the striker turned his back on the Turin giants, remaining in Udine. While it is true Di Natale failed to fire at the 2010 World Cup, at the Friuli the environment suits him perfectly and he flourishes.

Guidolin’s side restarted their Serie A campaign perfectly after the winter break, recording a comfortable home win over Chievo, but it was three days later in Milan that they earned a new raft of admirers. The meeting with AC Milan was the very definition of a "goal-fest", ending 4-4. Udinese played aggressive and skilful football that even, at times, embarrassed the league leaders; in the second half Guidolin’s side found themselves 3-1 up with 20 minutes to play. Milan though recovered quickly, thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Pato and Antonio Cassano. The visitors would not give up easily however, and Argentine Denis popped up in the 89th minute to give his side a 4-3 lead. Only a late Ibrahimovic goal could ensure the spoils were shared. For Serie A, so used to low scoring games, the match was a breath of fresh air.

The following Sunday, Udinese thrashed Genoa away, with both Sanchez and Di Natale linking up well and continuing their fine form. In the end, the 4-2 scoreline in favour of the Udine side flattered Genoa, who could have seen themselves blown away if Le Zebrette had been a mite more clinical. But if Udinese had started 2011 playing sublime football, things were only going to get better. On 23rd January, Guidolin’s team took to the pitch to face reigning champions Inter. The Nerazzurri quickly took the lead through Dejan Stankovic, but Udinese bounced back with three goals – Zapata, Di Natale and Domizzi on the scoresheet. The nature of the victory was impressive, and not just because of the football on show, but equally because under Leonardo Inter had improved to something of their old selves. So far, the former AC Milan coach has won seven times with Inter, losing just once – in Udine.

And the wins have kept flowing for Udinese. The "Bianconeri of Friuli" visited Turin, leaving with a 2-1 win which went some way towards making up for their September defeat; a draw with Bologna and victory over Sampdoria recently has kept Guidolin in the chase for the Champions League in what would truly be the icing on the cake of a wonderful season.

Udinese President Giampaolo Pozzo and Guidolin still speak of avoiding the drop down to Serie B, but if Le Zebrette continue 2011 as they have started it, Europe will not be a word that is taboo in Udine in the months to come.