Milan, Dec 12: Udinese defied the preseason skeptics by moving to the top of Serie A with a 2-1 win over Chievo on Sunday, as AC Milan was held to an entertaining 2-2 draw at Bologna and stayed third.
Udinese surprised many last season by finishing fourth, but the unfashionable club was expected to struggle this campaign after losing key midfielder Gokhan Inler to Napoli, while striker Alexis Sanchez—who had been last year's revelation—moved to Barcelona.
Instead, it leads the standings with 30 points after Antonio Di Natale scored his 10th of the season and Dusan Basta doubled its lead before Alberto Paloschi grabbed a consolation goal for Chievo.
Milan, now on 28 points, had been expected to beat Bologna and leapfrog above Juventus, which has 29 before it plays Roma on Monday.
Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin, who said as recently as Thursday that his main aim remains avoiding relegation, was delighted with the outcome.
“It's great. It's a magical period for us which we'll try to make last as long as possible,” Guidolin said. “Udinese have done well these past few years but not like this past year and a half.
“We didn't play to our best in the first half. But in the second the lads played amazingly, at a very high rhythm. We're at a brilliant place in the table, let's see how long it will last for.”
Marco Di Vaio put Bologna ahead but goals from Clarence Seedorf and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, from the penalty spot, then swung the match Milan's way. Alessandro Diamanti equalized for Bologna in the 73rd minute.
Bologna could have had a penalty when Seedorf handled in the area on the stroke of halftime and Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri admitted his team was somewhat fortunate.
“Seedorf touched it with his arm, it was a penalty,” Allegri said, before acknowledging that the spot kick granted against Ibrahimovic was a soft decision. “The defender kicked and Ibra threw himself to the ground, it's useless to deny the evidence. But the referee's errors weren't all against Bologna.”
Elsewhere, Atalanta drew 1-1 at home to 10-man Catania and Parma held Cagliari to a goalless draw. In the late game, Napoli could only draw 1-1 at struggling Novara.
Following a drab first half at the Stadio Friuli, Udinese stepped up a gear after the break. In the 67th minute Di Natale powerfully headed in Isla's cross. The Udinese captain moves level with Atalanta striker German Denis at the top of the goalscoring charts.
Basta headed home a corner for Udinese's second before Paloschi fired in a consolation for Chievo seven minutes from time.
There could have been more goals in Milan's match at Bologna as both Ibrahimovic and Di Vaio hit the woodwork.
The home side took the lead just eight minutes later when Diamanti sent a long ball through to Di Vaio, who beat the offside trap before lobbing the ball over the onrushing Marco Amelia.
Milan was back on level terms shortly after when Kevin Prince-Boateng jinked his way past two defenders before slotting the ball to Seedorf who controlled it with one touch and fired into the top right corner from just outside the area.
Milan went in front in the 72nd minute when Ibrahimovic was brought down by Andrea Raggi. Ibrahimovic dusted himself down and fired a perfect spot-kick into the bottom right corner. It was his ninth goal of the season and fourth penalty.
However, Bologna equalized immediately when Amelia failed to hold Diamanti's fierce shot.
In Bergamo, Catania took the lead in the 18th minute when Nicola Legrottaglie headed Giovanni Marchese's cross in under the crossbar.
However, Catania lost Nicolas Spolli before halftime when he picked up a second yellow card for pushing over Denis.
Atalanta eventually made the man advantage count in the 71st minute. Simone Tiribocchi was completely unmarked in the area as a corner was lofted in. And, although he woefully mis-hit his effort, it went in.
Napoli was expected to win comfortably at lowly Novara, which had just 10 points from 13 games heading into the match.
Ivan Radovanovic stunned Napoli in the 70th minute when he curled a stunning strike inside the near post from 30 yards after a short free-kick. Blerim Dzemaili leveled six minutes from full time.