Udinese will be looking to extend its unexpected run at the top of Serie A when it visits Parma this weekend, and second-place Lazio faces a tough test at Napoli.
While many of his teammates and opponents have been playing international matches, Serie A leading scorer Antonio Di Natale has had two weeks to rest after the Udinese captain was left out of Italy’s squad.
Meanwhile, Parma leading scorer Sebastian Giovinco is questionable after being sent home from Italy’s training camp with a leg muscle injury last week.
Udinese and Lazio are level with 21 points each but Udinese holds the edge on goal difference.
Based in Udine near the Slovenian border, Udinese’s best finish in Serie A was third in 1998 when former Germany international Oliver Bierhoff scored a league-best 27 goals.
Di Natale was also Serie A’s leading scorer each of the past two seasons with a combined 57 goals, and he already has eight goals in 10 matches this season.
Udinese’s defense has also been superb, with a league-low four goals allowed.
Success has been all the more surprising considering that Udinese sold three of its top players in the offseason - dealing forward Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona for 36.5 million euros ($50 million), midfielder Gökhan İnler to Napoli for 15 million euros ($21 million) and defender Cristian Zapata to Villarreal for 10 million euros ($13.5 million).
Smart spending has been a key for president Giampaolo Pozzo ever since he bought the small-market club in 1986. This past offseason, Udinese spent only 10.1 million ($14 million) and took in 66 million euros ($91 million).
Forward Antonio Floro Flores rejoined Udinese after a loan season at Genoa and has formed a potent attack tandem with Di Natale, while center back Danilo has become the anchor of the defense after being discarded by Palmeiras.
Pozzo is taking advantage of Udinese’s success to launch plans for an overhaul of the Stadio Friuli. Although he’s not expecting a title run.
“This isn’t our place, although we’re happy to be here as long as we can,” Pozzo said. “If we’re able to get back into Europe it will be another great season.”