Francesco Guidolin is infamous throughout Italy. Every weekend the withered old man solemnly sets off from his Friulian ranch and marches his zebras through rivers, across fields and over volcanoes in search of his elusive annual qualification for continental football. This weekend was no different. Guidolin and his herd trampled off the ferry from Genoa and arrived in Sardinia the day before their game with Cagliari. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
They arrived at the Stadio Is Arenas for some grazing and training on Friday evening. It was only there, that it became clear that something was amiss. The wise old Guidolin had been around long enough to sense that the eerie silence in the Is Arenas wasn't right. A gust of wind blew through the rickety, scaffold stadium. "We've been hoodwinked," he angrily muttered, before throwing his wooly hat to the ground furiously.
He was right. Cagliari had used the same trick they'd used throughout the season, and neglected to tell their opponents where the game would be played. Constantly threatening to move to the other side of Italy and Trieste's Stadio Nereo Rocco, Guidolin gambled that they were bluffing again. Only this time, they weren't. Tumbleweed rolled across the trimmed turf.
Antonio Di Natale snorted in fury. "We're going to play this game and make the Europa League" he announced, in his most determined tone. The other zebras, who were contentedly grazing under the floodlights suddenly looked up, startled. They were rather less impressed. Luis Muriel whimpered. He was tired from the journey. But fortunately he knew better than to question Di Natale; the most senior zebra of the herd.
And so, the heroic trek began. They crashed across the Tyrrhenian Sea, and found themselves in Genoa. Again. Marching though the fields of Emilia-Romagna, their heads began to drop. Muriel -- the usually-energetic baby zebra -- was now lagging behind, begging to stop. Passing through Piacenza and Brescia, they arrived in the grand streets of Verona. Halfway there.
Time was ticking. Kick-off was just hours away. The sun began to rise as they limply trotted single file through the narrow streets of Venice, before the bleak monotony of the endless fields which led to Trieste. Running parallel to the Adriatic, they longed for a drink. But there was no time.
Finally, with five minutes to spare, they arrived at the Nereo Rocco. Cagliari striker Mauricio Pinilla smirked at Di Natale, looking rather pleased with himself. For the first time in his life, the Chilean saw true hatred. The usually docile Di Natale, too old and wise for grudges, was furious.
But there was no heroic start. The journey had obviously taken a lot out of the zebras. Either that, or they remembered they had hooves instead of feet. Roberto Pereyra, an energetic, talented zebra, managed to skip into the box and receive the ball from six yards, though the ball sailed over the bar.
Other than that, next to nothing happened. They looked dazed, unable to break through the disciplined Cagliari defence. The rossoblu coach Ivo Pulga grinned evilly. His plan seemed to be working. At half-time the score was goalless, and there was no immediate sign that Udinese would be able to break the deadlock.
But Guidolin gave one last rousing team-talk. Usually silent, he let out a roar. He wanted one final effort. He got one. Udinese came out after the break refreshed. Cagliari looked startled. Željko Brkić, the zebrette goalkeeper, had been close to falling asleep. But suddenly he looked up, amazed. Roberto Pereyra had fired the ball into the back of the net. Udinese were ahead.
Against all odds, the shattered zebras held on. Cagliari grew increasingly frustrated. Mauricio Pinilla certainly wasn't smirking now. In stoppage time, he lunged at Giampiero Pinzi, furious that they were about to lose. He was sent off. Meanwhile on the bench, Guidolin let out a rare smile. The journey had been worthwhile. They'd be heading back to the ranch with a spring in their step and three points added to their tally. The Europa League is still within reach.
Cagliari: Michael Agazzi; Nicola Murru, Davide Astori, Lorenzo Ariaudo, Gabriele Perico; Radja Nainggolan, Daniele Conti, Federico Casarini (Víctor Ibarbo 57), Thiago Ribeiro (Danilo Avelar 68); Mauricio Pinilla, Marco Sau (Nenê 78)
Udinese: Željko Brkić; Maurizio Domizzi, Danilo, Mehdi Benatia; Gabriel Silva, Allan, Andrea Lazzari (Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu 35), Dušan Basta; Roberto Pereyra, Piotr Zieliński (Luis Muriel 52), Antonio Di Natale (Giampiero Pinzi 84)
Goals: Pereyra 56 (U)
Red cards: Pinilla 94 (C)