Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah and forward Antonio Di Natale have been key figures for Udinese this season. (Associated Press)
Like the current Premiership season, this year's Serie A campaign is one of the most exciting in recent memory with plenty of interesting stories.
Pegged by many to falter before the season kicked off, AC Milan currently tops the table while city rivals Inter Milan, the reigning Italian and European champions, are on their second coach and sit in fifth place. Lazio and Napoli have shed their under-achiever labels and have established themselves as legitimate title contenders.
Buoyed by Javier Pastore, Palermo is striking a blow for Sicilian pride, while Juventus, despite a major investment of new players in the off-season, has struggled for consistency.
But the most intriguing story of them all? That would be Udinese.Amazing turnaround
Located in the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli, Udinese sits eighth in the standings, a mere four points removed from a Champions League spot. Not bad for a modest provincial club whose biggest claim to fame somehow managing to sign Zico at the height of his career in the early 1980s.
That the Zebrette have climbed to the top half of the table and now find themselves challenging for a European spot is a quite the achievement. That they did it after enduring a horrible start to the season makes it even more amazing.
Udinese looked to be a candidate for relegation when it failed to record a single point until the fifth week of the campaign. Indeed, the Friuli outfit was the laughing stock of Serie A, losing its first four games out of the gate by a combined score of 9-2.
Under normal circumstances Francesco Guidolin, in his second stint as Udinese manager, would have been shown the door - Serie A chairmen are notorious for having itchy trigger fingers and don't hesitate to fire their managers at the first hint of trouble.
But owner Giampaolo Pozzo and Fabrizio Larini, the team's sporting director, held tight and gave Guidolin more time.
Their patience was duly rewarded as Udinese won their next four games in a row and has only lost four matches since the horrendous losing streak to start the season.
Under Guidolin, Udinese is playing some of the most attractive and entertaining soccer in Serie A this season and nobody is laughing at them any more - the Zebrette showed great heart in coming from behind to earn a convincing 3-1 win over Inter Milan on Sunday, their first victory against the Nerazzurri in 14 games.
Guidolin has experimented and tinkered with his formations, but the 3-5-2 set-up that he used to aplomb against Inter is his preferred system.A deadly duo
His greatest tactical achievement, though, has been his deployment of Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez just behind main striker Antonio Di Natale.
Sanchez, who Canadian fans will remember from his blistering displays for his country at the 2007 U-20 World Cup, has thrived in his new playmaking role, giving Udinese's attack more thrust up front.
He's also proven to be a nifty little provider for Di Natale, who currently tops the scoring charts in Serie A with 15 goals. Di Natale, it's fair to say, is in the form of his life, routinely scoring on marvellous set-pieces (like he did against Inter on the weekend) and highlight reel goals from open play.
Di Natale has benefited not only from the service of Sanchez, but also from the open space created by the speedy Chilean when he drags defenders out of position.
It's a highly effective partnership, bolstered by the wingbacks Mauricio Isla and Pablo Armero who, with their speed and attacking vision, have made Udinese one of the most dangerous counter-attacking sides in Serie A.
Of course, Udinese still leaks goals at the back like a sieve - they've conceded seven goals during their current four-game unbeaten run.
But Guidolin is of the philosophy that if "you're going to score three against us, we'll score four."
It's a completely un-Italian position to take, one completely foreign in a country that elevated the mundane act of defending into an art form.
But who cares? Udinese is a fun team to watch, and they have become Serie A's answer to Blackpool for their fearless attacking attitude.
Here's hoping the fun lasts to the end of the season.
Follow John F. Molinaro on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/JohnMolinaro
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