Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fearless Udinese Victorious Away At Napoli

Number 88 (Gokhan Inler) scored a spectacular goal but
did not celebrate... Why?

Udinese has had a truly fantastic season in the Serie A. While their start was terrible, losing their first four games in the league, they eventually figured out how to play a wonderful and winning way. While there are players which make the team shine, their success must be attributed to their coach Francesco Guidolin. He has been able to motivate Udinese to reach what were thought to be unreachable heights, fifth in the Serie A table. This weekend they were able to defeat second placed Napoli 2-1 at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples. While Guidolin couldn't call on the services of his two star players, Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez, his team was undaunted with the task of facing a powerful Napoli side.

For Napoli, this match was supposed to be the chance for them to win and then chase after table-leaders AC Milan. But Udinese had other plans. Napoli played their usual style, stretching the field well and constantly feeding the attacking trio of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani. Udinese were tight and compact, not letting anything leak through the well-drilled 3-5-1-1 formation.

But Napoli weren't as dangerous as expected. Cavani was missing big chances, Lavezzi was unable to keep the ball at his feet, and Hamsik was spraying inaccurate passes without aim. The rest of the Napoli team wasn't clicking, therefore allowing Udinese to slowly take over the game. On the other hand, Udinese were playing as a team. The lack of the brilliant Sanchez, and Serie A's top goalscorer Di Natale was no problem for Udinese, as players like Armero, Benatia, and Inler stepped up and performed very well.

Denis apologizing to Napoli fans for scoring
In the second half, the San Paolo deflated when Inler scored a goal ten minutes in. It was a wonderful shot from about 25 meters, slightly deflected into the top right corner of Napoli's net. Strangely, Inler didn't celebrate at all, and the rumor that has been going around is that the Swiss scorer didn't celebrate because next season he'll be joining Napoli. After the goal, Udinese really began to press forward looking for a second goal.

It came in the 62st minute, when ex-Napoli player Denis controlled with his chest and volleyed to make it 2-0. While Denis looked ready to celebrate at first, he quickly went over to the crowd and apologized for scoring! Ridiculous if you ask me. If a player scores, he celebrates, no matter who he scores against. The goal wasn't the wake up call for this sleepy Napoli side, and Walter Mazzarri's side only began to press forward in the final minutes.

Mazzarri had put on Lucarelli and Mascara, making up a total of five forwards on the field for Napoli as they incompetently snooped around for a goal. In the 87th minute a golden opportunity came when Domizzi literally grabbed Lavezzi and threw him to the ground (along with a few punches) in some good old Italian defending. It resulted in Domizzi's expulsion and a penalty kick for Cavani to take. While Cavani's penalty was a low and accurate effort, Handanovic's massive frame parried with astounding grace. Napoli's perfect scoring opportunity was denied by Handanovic's brilliant save.

The humble Udinese coach Francesco
Guidolin (right) at the end of the match
Yet Napoli kept on pushing forward for a goal. It came when Cavani whiffed a volley in front of goal and his teammate Mascara smashed the ball into the back of the net himself. While the goal lifted the mood at the San Paolo, it didn't change the distribution of the three points which went to Udinese. Throughout the tense match there were a few too many scuffles between players, and a fight nearly broke out when Armero cheekily poked the ball from the penalty spot before Cavani was about to take the spot kick.

Because Napoli failed to win this match, AC Milan now have a six point lead at the top of the table with just five matches left in the Serie A season. While it looks doubtful that Napoli will manage to claw their way above AC Milan, what looks much more likely is Udinese's ascension into the top four. Francesco Guidolin's side is just a point behind fourth placed Lazio. The Serie A's battle for Champions League action could even see third placed Inter Milan kicked out of the top four if they don't start to improve results.

Real Madrid and Barcelona Draw In Foreshadowing Clasico

Guardiola awkwardly watches Sergio Busquets and Mourinho
nuzzle noses in a memorable moment of the match

After my makeshift preview of El Clasico, things turned out exactly as I didn't think they would. While I was expecting an exciting battle between two sides wanting to crush each other, it turned out to be a fairly tiring affair to watch, especially the first half. The game eventually finished 1-1, with two goals scored from the penalty spot.

While Barcelona are a wonderfully inventive machine, it seemed as if Real Madrid had gotten themselves stuck inside the cogs of Barca's very technical system. Real started as a nuisance to Barcelona, nothing more nothing less. While Barcelona did their best to keep possession, Real defended deep and scrappily, stopping the game often for petty free kicks and other useless happenings.

Jose Mourinho's mastermind idea of putting Pepe into the midfield worked out perfectly, as the Portuguese-Brazilian was merciless in his aim to kill everything blaugrana. Alongside Khedira and Xabi Alonso, a three man wall was formed in front of Madrid defence, giving Barcelona a very tough job to do. While Messi's brilliance was shown in spurts, forcing Casillas to a good save as his defence panic, the Argentine was unable to stamp his authority on the first half.

Casillas got a hand to but was unable to save Messi's penalty
Yet Real Madrid were also fairly dangerous when they wanted to. Their cautious play was only effective going forward from set pieces, where they came very close to scoring with headers flashed wide. But Barcelona were dangerous as well, with David Villa brought down by Casillas in the box, risking a penalty for the Catalans. Simply stated, I've seen penalties given for less. But the first half drew to a close, Mourinho's mind churned through tactical systems and inequalities while Guardiola's speakers blasted out inspirational Coldplay in the dressing room.

The second half was sparked to life a few minutes in, when Raul Albiol's snake-grapple-takedown on David Villa resulted in his direct expulsion and a penalty for Barca. With laser pens flashing into Messi's concentrating eyes, the Argentine coolly trotted his run-up and put the spot kick into the back of the net. It was a disappointing start of the second half for Real, and things didn't look to get much better as Barcelona began to express themselves artistically in dominant possession.

Pepe wildly celebrating Ronaldo's equalizer

Jose Mourinho decided that it was all or nothing, and he substituted Benzema with Ozil and Di Maria with Adebayor. The pair of substitutes provided a necessary hunger which revived their teammates into a frantic push in the final ten minutes of the match. All this newfound Real pressure culminated when Marcelo earned a penalty as Dani Alves brought him down. Not to be bested by the short Argentine, Ronaldo smashed the penalty into the top corner in the 82nd minute.

The final minutes were the exciting frenzy I had been longing for. Real Madrid were fearless in their pushing, and Barcelona weren't really taking advantage of all the width of the field as their opponents were a man down. The match finished 1-1, with two slightly disappointed sides with some positives to take from the foreshadowing of the Copa del Rey final and the Champions League semi-finals.


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