Francesco Guidolin's ability to create modest teams fit to challenge the best helped him win Italy's Panchina d'Oro (golden bench) prize this week as the nation's top coach. "I'm very touched," the 56-year-old Udinese Calcio boss said. "It was a long road towards this award."
Through to the UEFA Europa League round of 16, Guidolin's side lie third in Serie A, with his second spell at Udinese – which began in summer 2010 – already proving much more successful than his first. The former midfielder had earned a mid-table finish in 1998/99 before being dismissed on the eve of the following campaign. A similar scenario never looked likely when his team ended up fourth in the table in 2010/11.
However, repeating that achievement seemed an equally long shot after star players such as Alexis Sánchez, Cristián Zapata and Gökhan Inler immediately moved on. Being within six points of leaders AC Milan today, in such circumstances, is a minor miracle, and had they not conceded late in a 2-1 home defeat by the Rossoneri earlier this month the gap would have been narrower still. "It was a pity because it was a game we fully deserved to win," said Guidolin.
"We want to qualify for Europe again," he explained. "We changed our objective once we reached the 40 points needed to be sure to avoid the drop." Keeping sensible targets and not thinking above their station are crucial elements to Guidolin's success in Udine. Hard work is another. His players know how fit they must be to keep pace with their coach, a passionate cyclist who climbs mountains in his spare time.
Guidolin's astuteness has also stood him in good stead. Brazilian centre-back Danilo stepped into Zapata's shoes ably while January signing Michele Pazienza appears capable of filling an Inler-shaped hole in midfield. But how do you replace a forward like Sánchez? Answer: you do not. "We play 3-6-1," Guidolin said. "We have a lot of fast and talented midfielders and then an outstanding player in Antonio Di Natale up front. This way, our opponents don't know who to mark."
The system has allowed Mauricio Isla, Pablo Armero and Dušan Basta to flourish on the flanks, while the 34-year-old Di Natale's 18 goals put him on course to be Serie A top scorer for a third season running. Basta, surprisingly, is Udinese's second highest marksman with five goals; the 27-year-old Serb previously played at right-back – and had failed to score in three preceding Serie A seasons, having also registered only three times for his first club FK Crvena zvezda.
Unlikely, but true to the form for Guidolin. "Once again we are surprising people," said the coach, whose team have won 33 of their 63 Serie A games since his return. "
We hope to keep upsetting the logic of the market. Other clubs have different budgets and targets but we are still here fighting hard for the top positions. We are really proud of that. We will try to keep surprising people for another two months."
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