Udinese Calcio came within five minutes of marking their maiden UEFA Champions League campaign with a place in the knockout rounds, before two late FC Barcelona goals deprived them of the point they needed, meaning they will have to be content with a UEFA Cup berth.
Santiago Ezquerro struck the opener on 85 minutes following a goalmouth scramble, and with the hosts pressing in search of the equaliser, substitute Andrés Iniesta swept home a second on the break. The Spanish champions' late success means Werder Bremen advance to the last 16, while Udinese are left to ponder what might have been.
In front of a rare packed house at the Friuli stadium, Udinese lined up in a 3-5-2 formation with Vincenzo Iaquinta and Vincent Candela both selected despite recent injury lay-offs. Juarez, meanwhile, came in at centre-back in place of Felipe. Barça fielded a side as unfamiliar as the luminous yellow shirts they wore, with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o making way for Henrik Larsson and Ludovic Giuly up front.
The match sprang to life in the tenth minute with Damiano Zenoni fooling Giovanni van Bronckhorst down the right flank, before crossing into the path of Antonio Di Natale who somehow mis-hit his shot. Barça countered, Deco putting Giuly through one-on-one down the right. However, with goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis beaten, the French international saw his fierce strike rebound off the crossbar.
Serse Cosmi's makeshift back line almost conceded in the 38th minute when Deco narrowly missed the target with a sumptuous back-heeled flick from Juliano Belletti's centre. Giuly came even closer three minutes before the break, working his way into the area and stroking the ball under the sprawling De Sanctis and off the post from the tightest of angles.
Boosted by their vociferous fans, the hosts started the second half brightly, with the knowledge their fate lay in their own hands. Roberto Néstor Sensini began launching searching balls from deep to use the pace of Di Natale and the aerial threat of Iaquinta. The latter controlled one such pass only for his ensuing effort to be blocked by Carles Puyol.
On the hour Gabri García put Belletti through with a beautiful low threaded pass, only for the wing-back to hit the side-netting on the run from 15 metres. Neither team showed much urgency as the game wore on, with Udinese keen to give nothing away, and De Sanctis was hardly troubled by a tame attempt from Barcelona substitute Iniesta.
With time ticking down, Iaquinta's replacement David Di Michele dallied and a decent chance was lost. Udinese were made to pay dearly as Barcelona struck the killer blow with five minutes to go. Just when Mexican waves were starting to take hold of the stadium, Ezquerro hit the bar with a half-volley. Amid the scramble to head clear, the Barça wide man powered a shot into the net from six metres to shatter Friuli dreams.
And as the hosts poured forward in desperation, Ezquerro broke again, squaring to Iniesta who stroked the ball into an empty net from 20 metres. Udinese's misery was complete.