The finish line is in sight, but instead of seeing a white and black flag on the last lap, Napoli are getting one with five to go. Yeah, that turn of phrase was a little thin, but come on, what else was there to go with?
The Last Gasp Of Guidolin
Normally one of the darlings of Italy and an inclusion in European competition, this has been a brutally tough season for Udinese. Instead of fighting with the big boys in the fringes of Champions League qualification as we got used to seeing, they're kicking around all the way down in 14th place. They're not even quite safe from relegation yet, though they're just a couple friendly results away from ensuring they stay up.
That failure has put remarkable pressure on Francesco Guidolin, and Udi's animated manager is on the ropes. It's even been reported of late that his club are already lining up candidates to replace him. At this point, unless Guidolin guides his squad to five straight wins to finish out the season, he's all but certain to be out of a job come the end of the season.
Udinese haven't had much of a change tactically since last these two teams met, though they have had another change at goalkeeper; after an injury sidelined Zeljko Brkic in January, Simone Scuffet took over and has started ever since, one last runout for Ivan Kelava aside. Scuffet's probably been Udi's best netminder this season, giving up 14 goals in 12 matches, which is a sight better than Brkic's 19 in 11.
Marking Time Before The Next Song
We covered the big injury news earlier, with Gonzalo Higuain out with a training injury. The news isn't all bad, though: Camilo Zuniga is in the matchday squad for the first time since he hurt his knee in October. It's doubtful he starts, but just having him on the bench is a marked improvement on the fullback depth Napoli has had for the last, well, six months that he's been out.
Otherwise, Napoli are facing the usual big fat zero of changes. Higuain will almost certainly be replaced in the lineup by Duvan Zapata, given the Colombian's far superior form of late to Goran Pandev, plus the fact that Zapata's strength on and off the ball will be of great use in helping Napoli deal with Udi's three man back line. There's a chance we might see Blerim Dzemaili rotated in as he hasn't played in a few weeks, but it feels more likely that Rafa sticks with his tried and true midfield pairing of Jorginho and Gokhan Inler.
Projected Lineups Sure To Be Wrong
Udinese: Scuffet; Heurtaux, Danilo, Domizzi; Basta, Pereyra, Allan, Badu, Silva; Muriel, Di Natale
Napoli: Reina; Henrique, Fernandez, Albiol, Ghoulam; Inler, Jorginho; Callejon, Hamsik, Insigne; Zapata
At a glance
Udinese: 14th 11W 5D 17L; League Form: LLWDW
Napoli: 3rd; 20W 7D 6L; League Form: WLWWL
Last Time Out
Last Time Out
Napoli rested several players ahead of their last Champions League group match and had several others out injured last time they faced Udinese, and for awhile it seemed like a Goran Pandev brace would be enough to see them through the day. Two quick second-half goals turned the match on its head, though, and even though Blerim Dzemaili put Napoli back in the lead in short order, a disastrous error by substitute Valon Behrami let Udi equalize again.
On the plus side, that was the debut match of Rafael, and while his first outing was rough we still saw the first signs of the quality goalkeeping play to come. Hopefully we see much the same when he returns to health. Also, for what it's worth, the two goals that Pandev scored on that chilly December day were the last goals he scored this season. Just in case you were wondering what kind of impact he's been having on the first team. Which is to say very little good impact.
The match will start [day] at 3:00 PM CET/9:00 AM EST. Television coverage will be on Sky Calcio 3 in Italy and beIN Sports Play (online streaming) in America. Other live viewing options can be found here, and as always, we'll have a match thread live here for discussion of the game at hand. You can also follow along with us live on Twitter.