Udinese surging towards Champions League spot

ROME - Tucked away in the northeast corner of Italy near the Slovenian border, the small city of Udine seems an unlikely spot for the Serie A top scorer and one of the world's top young strikers to be both plying their trade.

But Udinese have big football pedigree and victory in Sunday's simple-looking home game with struggling Catania will strengthen their grip on fourth and a Champions League qualifying place.

The Friuli region where the club are based was the birthplace of several top football names, including England coach Fabio Capello, but Udinese's two rampaging forwards hail from very different parts of the world.

Naples-born Antonio Di Natale banged in an astonishing 29 league goals last season to top Italy's scoring charts but then suffered a poor World Cup and has been cast aside by the national team.

Unperturbed and after refusing a move to once mighty Juventus to stay with his beloved Udinese, the 33-year-old has continued to savage Serie A keepers and is league top scorer again with 24 goals from 29 games.

His strike partner Alexis Sanchez, 22, is from Chile and has managed 12 league goals this term, prompting interest from some of Europe's big clubs with sums in excess of 20 million euros being bandied about in the media.

Inter Milan were very interested in January but dogged Udinese clung on to their prize asset for a few months at least, just like they have with midfielder Gokhan Inler after years of transfer speculation linking the talented Swiss with a move.

"All the group work really well, not just our forwards," coach Francesco Guidolin told www.udinese.it.

"I've always thought that we have a quality squad and that's why I've never made requests to the club. I have always believed in my club and my players."

Guidolin surprised Serie A observers when he returned to his former club in the close season despite leading Parma to eighth spot last term when Udinese finished 15th.

His gamble proved a good one as they now target a return to the Champions League following their 2005 experience at Europe's top table.

Catania have failed to find a significant pickup in form despite tough taskmaster Diego Simeone taking charge in January but last weekend's 1-0 win against Sampdoria at least gave them a four-point cushion over the drop zone.

Leaders AC Milan visit Palermo on Saturday with striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic starting a three-game ban and next opponents Inter, five behind their rivals in second with nine games left, host lowly Lecce on Sunday.