Only 10,026 spectators were present in an empty Stadio Friuli to witness Udinese’s victory over Atlético in the Europa League.
The Zebrette left it late, in a match which again saw Atleti unable to score in an away game.
At least on paper, this was our toughest Europa League fixture of the group phase, but Gregorio Manzano seemed to take the match lightly, resting several players.
Álvaro Domínguez didn’t even make the bench.
In attack Juanfran and Pizzi got rare starts, while Paulo Assunção replaced the out-of-form Mario Suárez in midfield. Luis Perea returned to the starting XI and Diego Godín partnered up with Miranda in defence.
Francesco Guildolin also left out some of his key players and sat down next to his star forward Antonio Di Natale on the bench.
Udinese are most dangerous from counter-attacks and they were happy to let Atleti have the ball as we dominated the majority of the game.
But the first big opportunity of the match was for Antonio Floro Flores, who found himself unmarked after a free kick. Fortunately for Atleti a bad start was avoided, because the striker headed the ball over the crossbar.
When Atlético first created an opportunity it fell before the feet of the man who is yet to score after 264 appearances. Luis Perea created a chance all by himself, but shot straight at goalkeeper Handanovic.
The home side only threatened through set pieces and came close after half an hour, but Courtois kept out the powerfully hit free kick by Giampiero Pinzi with an excellent save.
Atleti saw plenty of the ball but failed to open up Udinese’s defence. There were shots from distance by Falcao, Gabi and Pizzi, but they were off target or aimed at Handanovic.
After the break Diego Godín was handed a huge opportunity when a loose ball fell before his feet, but the Uruguayan showed he’s better with his head than his feet and shot wide from close range.
A minute later Thibaut Courtois pulled off an incredible save when Benatia directed a powerful header towards the topcorner.
There was a bit of controversy at about the 75th minute mark. Falcao failed to get to a clear scoring chance after being noticeably held and then flung to the ground by Udinese’s Dušan Basta.
The Colombian flailed his arms in disbelief towards the referee, angry that a penalty kick had not been awarded.
Play continued and neither side was able to create any opportunities. All attacks were stranded at an early stage.
We seemed on our way to a third consecutive goalless draw, but Udinese decided the match with a fortunate goal just before time.
Filipe Luis cleared another free kick, but no further than Fabbrini who was waiting on the edge of the box. The forward didn’t strike the ball very well, but on the way to goal it was controlled by centre back Benatia who avoided being offside and calmly finished.
In the added time Floro Flores made matters even worse for the Rojiblancos when he netted his squad’s second with a great strike.
We suddenly found ourselves down 2-0.
Although the team deserved more than leaving Udine empty-handed, Atlético’s performance was again uninspiring and we failed to score in yet another away game.
Udinese now lead Group I of the Europa League with 7 points, while Atleti follow with four. Rennes and Celtic have two points each after their 1-1 draw.
In two weeks Atlético play the return leg against the Italians at the Vicente Calderón.
Line-up: Courtois; Perea, Miranda, Godín, Filipe; Gabi (“80 Adrián), Assunção, Diego; Juanfran (“59 Reyes), Falcao and Pizzi (“86 Koke).
Goals: 1-0 Benatia (“88); 2-0 Floro Flores (“94)