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Underdogs Udinese, Atalanta thinking big after fast starts

Udinese are on the hunt for their seventh straight win as they await the visit of fellow surprise package Atalanta on Sunday, a clash between two of Serie A’s model clubs.

A traditionally tiny team used to punching above their weight, Udinese are just one point behind league leaders Napoli from whom Atalanta are separated by goal difference.

The 19 points racked up by Andrea Sottil’s team is the most Udinese have ever accumulated from their first eight games of a Serie A season and their aggressive, attacking performances have made the rest of the league sit up and take notice.

Having already thumped both Inter Milan and Roma on home turf, on Monday they fought back from a goal down at Verona to claim a 2-1 win in stoppage time in a performance that was more like one of Gian Piero Gasperini’s vintage Atalanta sides than the stodgy Udinese of recent seasons.

In Gerard Deulofeu, Udinese have one of the league’s brightest creative forces and their total of 17 goals is only one less than Napoli, who travel to Cremonese on a high after smashing Ajax 6-1 in Amsterdam.

Owned by the Pozzo family for over three decades, Udinese have been a Serie A fixture since the mid-1990s and are one of the few clubs in Italy to own their stadium, the old city-owned Stadio Fruili having been bought in 2013 and then refurbished into the sort of modern facility other clubs dream of having.

“The secret of our success is the Pozzo family,” said Udinese’s sporting director Pierpaolo Marino after the Verona win.

“Thinking big helps you to win. We shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back but realise that we’re good.” 

Atalanta are another club who, by budget, should not be anywhere near Italy’s big guns but last season’s eighth-placed finish now looks a blip rather than the end of an era.

Throughout Gasperini’s reign in Bergamo, Atalanta have bewitched fans with their gung-ho football but this year are a much more sober proposition.

Just three goals conceded in their eight matches — which include fixtures with AC Milan and Roma — is even more impressive given the recent raft of injuries that have affected Gasperini’s team selection, with Italy defender Rafael Toloi the latest to be ruled out with a thigh injury.

He joins centre-back Berat Djimsiti, starting goalkeeper Juan Musso, right-back Davide Zappacosta and first choice centre-forward Duvan Zapata on the treatment table.

Atalanta are also renovating their stadium, bought off Bergamo city council in 2017, and have attracted foreign investment in the shape of American fund Bain Capital to flank long-time owners the Percassi family.

Another club trying to build a new stadium is AC Milan, who have to stop licking their wounds after humiliation at Chelsea and prepare for the visit of Juventus.

Milan have got their title defence off to a decent start and sit three points behind the leading pair, but half of Stefano Pioli’s first-choice team are out of the San Siro clash injured with Chelsea coming to Milan on Tuesday.

Juve will miss the creativity of the suspended Angel Di Maria, who set up every goal in their 3-1 win over Maccabi Haifa on Wednesday and looked a class above everyone else on the Allianz Stadium pitch.

Player to watch: Gerard Deulofeu

The one-time Spain international has already set up six goals this season and is top of the pile for assists, ahead of much bigger names like Rafael Leao and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. 

Former Watford man Deulofeu has had a bitty career but has found a home at Udinese, where he is at the centre of Sottil’s attack-minded strategy.

Everything flows through the 28-year-old, who will be key to whether Udinese has break down Italy’s stingiest backline.

Key stats

6 – Both Udinese’s winning run and Gerard Deulofeu’s league assists

5 – Portuguese striker Beto has netted five times for Udinese

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