'Superstars want to play in Serie A again' - Udinese ace Larsen on Ronaldo, Zlatan, Lukaku & Eriksen

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Before we begin, Jens Stryger Larsen wants to make one thing clear.

"I really want to say, I know there's maybe a perception outside Italy that Serie A is a boring league because everyone is obsessed with tactics – but that's simply not true," the Dane declares in an exclusive interview with Goal.

"I've learned a lot about tactics since I've been here but it's actually one of the most exciting leagues in the world. If you look at the games over the past few years, it's not just one-goal wins or nil-all draws.

"The league has really changed a lot. And I think that's partly why so many superstars have now come to Serie A. The best players want to play in Italy again."

Indeed, two went head-to-head, literally, on Tuesday night in one of the games of the season so far, as Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic collided in a heated Coppa Italia clash at San Siro between Inter and AC Milan.

Like everyone else watching at home, Larsen was enthused by the quality of the quarter-final and utterly engrossed in the action, but not just because of his love of the Italian game.

He had a vested interest, at least in the closing stages, when his fellow Dane Christian Eriksen came off the bench for Inter.

The attacking midfielder has had a tough time since moving to Italy last January and was expected to leave during the current transfer window.

However, after securing a 2-1 victory for Inter with a 97th-minute free kick, everything seems to have changed for Eriksen, who now looks poised to play a pivotal role in the second half of the Serie A season, much to Larsen's delight.

"I couldn't have been happier for Christian that he scored such an important goal – and such a beautiful goal – in the last few seconds," he says, beaming with pride.

"I don't really know why it's been difficult for him to get into the Inter team every week but I've known him since I was 15 years old. I played with him for Denmark at youth level, and now for the national team, so I know the quality he has.

"He's unbelievable and he's our most important player. So, I'm sure that he will once again prove himself the superstar that I know he is."

Jens Stryger Larsen Christian Eriksen Inter GFX

Eriksen was unfortunate in that he arrived in Italy just before the coronavirus-enforced lockdown which resulted in the suspension of Serie A for three months.

By contrast, Larsen was already well settled at Udinese at that stage, having joined from Austria Wien in August 2017, and played nearly every Serie A game since.

His versatility certainly helps in that regard, with Larsen a member of that rare breed of full-backs capable of playing on both the right and left flanks, and even at the heart of the defence.

He's also excellent going forward, though, which is why Udinese have also deployed him on the right-hand side of midfield. So, while coaches may come and go at the Dacia Arena, Larsen always remains a fixture in the starting line-up.

Still, he's clearly enjoying this current spell of stability under Luca Gotti, who was appointed on an interim basis in November 2019 but subsequently given the job full time after leading Udinese to safety last season.

"I'm very happy with the coach," Larsen enthuses. "He's doing a good job. Thanks to him, we coped really well with the first lockdown and got a lot of points.

"Also, I've been here three and a half years now and I've had a lot of coaches in that time (seven, to be precise) – their reigns were a lot shorter than his! So, I think that shows that the club trusts in him, and that we, as players, believe in him.

"So far, the season has had a lot of ups and downs for us. We had a tough start but then we had a good period where we won some big games, like Lazio away. We've had some good results in the past week, too, drawing with Atalanta and Inter, but, in general, January has been a tough period for us because we had a lot of games.

"But we're still not satisfied with the position we're in right now (14th). I think we can do better, especially with the players we have and the coach we have now. We can definitely develop a lot more."

Larsen has own reasons for helping Udinese finish the season strongly, with the 29-year-old hoping to earn a place in Kasper Hjulmand's squad for this summer's European Championship, particularly as the Danes are scheduled to play all three of their group games in Copenhagen.

Jens Stryger Larsen Udinese GFX

"If the Covid-19 situation allows it, we can really benefit from playing at Parken," he reasons. "I think over the past three years we have really shown our strength. We never lose any games, so I think we have a good chance.

"In a tournament, anything can happen, and there are always a couple of small teams that surprise people. And we're not just coming to get through the group either – we want to win the whole thing. That's why we're there.

"First of all, though, I have to make the squad! And I'm going to try to make it as difficult as possible for the coach to leave me out."

There seems little chance of that, particularly as players who can fulfil multiple roles are invaluable at international tournaments. Furthermore, at 29, Larsen only seems to be getting better, something he attributes to testing himself every week against some of the best players in the world.

"The elite guys no longer just go to Spain or England," he points out. "They're now coming to Italy again too. They want to play in this league, which only makes it tougher and tougher."

So, who's the toughest to play against, then?

"Of course, I can say Cristiano Ronaldo is up there, because he's one of the best players in the whole world, but I've faced other players who had different qualities that were just as difficult to deal with," he explains.

"I mean, you can't answer this question without mentioning Zlatan and Lukaku too. But it's hard to pick out individuals because Serie A is one of the strongest leagues in the world again.

"I've learned a lot since I've been here, particularly on a tactical level, but the club have taken very good care of me since I've been here, too, so I feel like I've developed a lot as a football player and a person."

He's certainly now the kind of character who could fit into any team in any country, and he freely admits that he'd like to try something, or somewhere, different before he retires.

Jens Stryger Larsen Udinese GFX

"I'm very happy here at Udinese and I still have a contract until the summer of 2022," he says. "But, personally, I would also like to challenge myself at the highest level possible. So, I'm not saying 'I will stay at Udinese forever and finish my career here.'

"I would also like to try something else. And I've also made that clear to the club. When it's going to happen, and how, or where I'm headed, it's hard to know. It's a difficult question right now, particularly in times like these.

"But I'm open-minded in terms of trying something else. And that doesn't mean I'd only like to try in England or Spain; I can even see myself trying something else in Italy, because I really enjoy the league."

For now, though, he's focused solely on helping Udinese scale the Serie A standings.

"We've already finished half of the season and we're not in the position we want to be," he concedes. "We just wanted to get as far away from the relegation zone as possible. Once we get to 40 points, we'll take it from there and see what we can accomplish.

"But anything can happen in football, particularly these days. Because of Covid we're seeing a lot of strange results and there are very few points between all the top teams in a lot of leagues. It's easier for smaller teams to play away to the big clubs because there's less pressure without the fans.

"But, I have to admit that I hope we have them back before the end of the season. I would say we've adapted, given it's been almost an entire year playing without them, and we all know why they can't be there. But I miss having the fans there so much.

"I even miss arriving at the stadium in the team bus for away games and seeing everyone outside is against you! But also just walking out onto the pitch and feeling the atmosphere – that's gone too.

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"So, I can't wait until they're allowed back because the fans just bring something extra to football, something that's hard to describe. So, that's just one of the reasons why I'm counting down the days until everything goes back to normal.

"But who knows what will happen next? In life and in football, everything can change for you in a split-second."

As Eriksen's free kick so wonderfully underlined.