Stop the presses – Arles Avignon have won a game

Photo: Icon Sport

After 1080 minutes of football in Ligue 1, AC Arles Avignon have finally grabbed their first win in the top flight.

Last night, Arles defeated Caen (the only side with similar form to Arles-Avignon at the moment) 3-2. Arles upturn in form in October gives them some remote hope of scaling the chasm between them and Nice in 17th. Only 8 points.

One of the rarest things you will ever see in football is Kaba Diawara either playing well or scoring. The 34 year old former striker, who has played for more or less every club around Europe scored his first goal for Arles, then bettered that by converting a penalty. The only rarer thing you are likely to see on a football field is Karl Henry making a spectacular tackle. Wait, that happened yesterday as well…..

Only Steve Claridge can rival Diawara in terms of the vast number of sides he’s turned out for. Difference being Claridge tended to score.

The match wasn’t one for the defensively minded out there. Caen took the lead through Youssef El-Arabi’s strike in the 10th minute, after a well worked move by Caen that left the entire Arles defence scrambling.

But Arles didn’t let their heads drop (you think they would after 11 games without a win.) Gael Germany equalised after a sensational through-ball from Hameur Bouazza, which he deftly put past Caen keeper Alex Thebaux.

Then in the 33rd minute, Camel Meriem’s high free kick was found with a glancing header from Diawara found the corner of the net. Cue jubilation in the crowd.

However, not to be outdone with a free-kick routine, Caen responded after half-time magnificently as Kandia Traore bicycled kick the equaliser. Lovely finish but question marks over the Arles defence who appeared static as the free-kick came in, leaving Traore unmarked.

More drama followed in the 76th minute after Thebaux lunged in recklessly on Franck Dja Djedje. Penalty given, although Thebaux may have touched the ball. Either way, Diawara hit it straight and true and Arles held on for their first win in Ligue 1.

Manager Faruk Hadzibegic  reflected on the monumental win, he said: “We suffered a lot, but we deserved the win. Caen played well, but that’s football.”

“We won thanks to the determination. We had some difficulties early in the game but the team has managed to remain calm and make a difference. It’s good for morale and I dedicate this victory to all those who work for the club and the supporters. It is a victory that we can revive from even if the road is still long.”

So modest, the threat of the wooden spoon the day before clearly scared Arles Avignon and congratulations to them on their first win and the fact they doubled their goal tally for the season in one game. Still on -18 goal difference and 8 points behind at least for this weekend, there’s a mountain to climb. At least Arles have actually started to climb it finally.


The hunt for a win in October – AC Arles Avignon

Finally, there is relatively good news to report about Arles Avignon. Well I say good news, that maiden win in Ligue 1 still eludes our renegades from the south coast of France. They’ve finally managed to get some points on the board this season, with back-to-back draws against fellow promoted and now surprise run-away leaders Brest and Lyon too.

It really is remarkable seeing the contrast between Arles-Avignon and Stade Brestois. It was fairly obvious that Arles-Avignon were going to find the transition tough at best, but the Brittany club have been sensational this season, with only 2 defeats in those 11 games. They started fairly poorly but have been on a roll since with the Arles game being the only blemish in their form.

Brest have done something which is often not associated with promoted sides, and that’s having a rock-solid defence. They didn’t concede a goal in October, mainly thanks to Ahmed Kantari and Moise Apanga being almost ever-present in that back four. Hardly big names but both have grasped their opportunity, and Kantari has said that they deserve their place at the top. It would be hard to argue with him.

The game with Arles was a toughly contested game but featured fleeting opportunities for both sides. Lady Luck smiled on Arles’ side for the first time in the campaign, after Brest hit the woodwork twice in the second half. Nolan Roux’s header was the key chance in the game for Brest and it rattled the crossbar. Coincidently, Roux, only 22 has been superb this season, with the press speculating where his next move may be.

So, Arles managed to grab their first point, next up was Olympique Lyonnais. Now, Lyon haven’t had the best of starts to the season, but October saw them pick up some semblance of consistency under Claude Puel and they finally progressed up the table to 10th. The game was highly anticipated, a must win game for under-fire Puel, but it will be more fondly remembered for the weather. Stormy conditions caused the football quality to deteriorate , even more so with Arles playing.

Bizarre scenes before the match started. The Lyon players all stood on the pitch embracing each other, shaking hands and such possibly showing their backing of Claude Puel. This was after reports that Cris had led a revolt against the manager in a meeting, mainly due to his decision to drop him in previous games. Low and behold, Cris made the biggest impact in this game, literally by elbowing Camel Meriem, forcing him to be stretchered off.

Arles made the most of the slippery conditions at Parc Des Sports and they finally scored their first home goal of the season, through Franck Dja Djedje with a superb jink around Hugo Lloris and slotted in between two Lyon defenders. Cue jubilation and a half-time lambasting from Puel. It worked as Jimmy Briand scored straight after half-time with a downward header that should have been held by Cyrille Merville.

Either way, a fantastic draw for Arles, even considering Lyon’s problems this season. To quote the song – Sur le pont d’Avignon. L’on y danse, l’on y danse.

They took that result to Lorient and were roundly treated to a Kevin Gameiro masterclass. Ah well, a massive improvement in October for them. Here’s some highlights and November’s fixtures for Arles-Avignon:

6th Nov – Caen (H)

13th Nov – Monaco (A) – (biggest game in terms of league positioning)

21st Nov – Bordeaux (H)

27th Nov – Valenciennes (A)

Also we should note that Arles Avignon and Willem II are both on two points this season. If the two end on the same points at the end of the season, and rock bottom of the leagues across Europe, then a fixture should be contested at a neutral venue (DW Stadium) to decide who is the worst team in Europe. I think it has legs Platini….it should be dubbed UEFA Wooden Spoon

Arles Avignon vs Willem II - UEFA Wooden Spoon final?



AC Arles-Avignon: Harsh reality of top-flight football (August)

Arles-Avignon line-up united against Rennes, but ultimately another defeat (Photos Jean-Pierre LUPI)

About a month or so ago, I wrote a piece about Ligue Un’s newest side AC Arles-Avignon. Within that, I attempted to chronicle the recent history of the small club, with their astronomical rise through the lower tiers of French football and the expectations of tricky times ahead for the side. So with four fixtures down, are the French underdogs emulating the start of their English counterparts Blackpool?

In a word, no. Arles-Avignon have started the league campaign with four straight defeats against Sochaux (who’ve stunned critics with their start), Lens, front-runners Toulouse and Rennes. They stand rock bottom of the league, 3 points adrift of Champions League qualifiers AJ Auxerre, who clearly have bigger fish to fry, or at least attempt to in the Group of Death.

That doesn’t mean Arles Avignon have been outclassed. Far from it in fact. Each defeat has been by a single goal, which is better than many pundits in France have been suggesting they would get on. The manager, Mr Marvel himself, Michel Estevan has been busy in the transfer market attracting no less than 15 new players in the window. The main draw being attracting Greek hero Angelos Charisteas, the man who scored the winning goal in the Euro 2004 final against Portugal of course, to the club.

Distant fairytale memories for Charisteas as he finds a new fable to write his name in

This could be an indication of how far the mighty have fallen in a matter of 6 years. Quite possibly considering that Fernando Santos’ first act as Greek coach was to drop him from the national side. He may have been declining since then, notably at Nurnberg, but no one can dispute the coup that Estevan has made actually bringing him to a club of Arles-Avignon’s stature. Couple that with fellow Greek, and former international captain Angelos Basinas, Estevan must be praised for bringing them to Arles but also for taking a gamble.

Some other players may be recognisable to English football fans, mainly for the wrong reasons. Yann Kermorgant, exiled by Leicester due to his penalty chip in the Playoffs, has played in all 4 games so far. Algerian Kamel Ghilas has been acquired on loan from Hull, after making 13 appearances last year in Humberside but never really showing any class and effectively playing in the reserves a lot of the time.

His best signing appears to be Vincent Plante, the superb keeper from Caen. If you need anything at this level, it’s an experienced pair of safehands in between the sticks, and he’s pulled off some magnificent saves so far this year, limiting the damage on occasion.

Arles-Avignon have been unlucky so far in Ligue 1. In the last game against Rennes, they were unfortunate to not at least get a point, dominating following on from Victor Montano’s 28th minute goal. Even Rennes manager, Frederic Antonetti sympathised with the task of Estevan. He said: “This team of Arles-Avignon has caused us many problems and they will create surprises in this league. When you rise up the league, from CFA2 to L1, with a club that does not have deep pockets, it shows you how good the manager is!”

The club president, Marcel Salerno was also confident that Arles could get out of the early season slump. He said on the club’s official website : “Against Rennes we showed that we had our place at this level, contrary to certain statements. We are on the right path.”

The main issue for the club at the moment is to create attendance at the Parc Des Sports. Now with a capacity of 17,518, the first two home games saw attendance around half of that. Of course this is mainly down to the fact that the club moved to to Avignon as they rose up the league to conform with league stipulations. Maybe that will change if the results do, you should back your local team.

Things won’t get easier in September for Arles-Avignon. Next up is a daunting trip to the capital to face PSG, not as tough a fixture as it was in the past though, followed up by the visit of the French champions, Olympique Marseille. Tough task, but if Arles want to make an impact in the league, this is surely the time to do it, with several teams having backroom issues and consistency only being found by Toulouse (4 wins from 4).

I hope to make this a monthly blog, keeping you up to date with my favourite French side. Here’s the highlights from Arles-Avignon’s home games so far

The rise and imminent demise of AC Arles Avignon

Many English football fans would say that Blackpool’s play-off victory over Cardiff City last May was one of the biggest underdog victories in recent memory. Blackpool had been a sleeping giant for well over 30 years and their return to the big league was truly memorable. But in fact, there is a bigger fairytale story in European football of a smalltown club which hasn’t had enough coverage considering how far the club has come in such a short time. That club is AC Arles Avignon.

If you thought the antics of Ian Holloway’s press conferences were crazy, then think again. AC Arles are perhaps one of the strangest clubs in Europe.

Arles is a small French city in the southern region of Bouches Du Rhone, with a population of just under 60,000 (about the same as Margate). It is about 50 miles from Marseille and is known for its Roman monuments, which are World Heritage sites. It also known for holding bullfighting in its amphitheatre. Famous people to come from Arles include former Liverpool and French international striker Djibril Cisse and Blackburn defender Gael Givet.

Considering that the town of Arles has produced two very talented footballers, you would think they would be higher up in the league. But the club has always languished in the lower leagues of French football, occasionally making it into Ligue 2 only to return back to non-league football, even dropping down to the 5th tier. The English equivalent of that would be the North West Counties League.

Michel Estevan, the manager behind the magic (Le Equipe)

But in 2005, Arles Avignon began their ascent out of French football obscurity. They hired Michel Estevan. Not a household name even in France. Estevan’s club career wasn’t impressive as he struggled to make a living as a centre-back in the 2nd and 3rd tiers of French football. The biggest club he played for was Nimes, who spent one season in Ligue 1.

By contrast his managerial career is undoubtedly superb. He took non-league FC Martigues to the quarter finals of the French cup, where they were narrowly beaten by Paris St Germain (a Ronaldinho goal no less). Despite that he was sacked after 25 league games. Martigues went down. They rehired him in February 2004 and then sacked him again 9 months later after failing to gain promotion to the National (French conference league basically).

Estevan joined Arles in 2005, at the request of chairman and good friend Chauvin Patrick. In his first season, Arles were promoted. Then in his second season, Arles were promoted. I think you see the trend here. In 07/08, they finished 8th in the National, but the following year they finished 3rd. Estevan’s nickname as the Magician was well justified and he has been compared to Guy Roux by some, a compliment of the highest order

However to gain promotion to Ligue 2, a club must have professional status. AC Arles had always been an amateur side. Their former ground, Stade Fernand Fournier had a capacity of 2,000. Fortunately, an agreement with nearby club Avignon 84 allowed them to play at the Parc Des Sports with a capacity of over 7,000. This also instigated a name change with Avignon being added to the club name. You’d think this would be beneficial to both sides, but relations are tense. Avignon is a bigger city and has a bigger stadium, and it’s fair to say that they are jealous of their neighbours sudden surge up the divisions.

Getting into Ligue 2 wasn’t exactly easy either. The DNCG (the French regulatory body) barred AC Arles Avignon from participating in the league due to financial problems within the club, likely caused from the change to professional status. They eventually won on appeal however.

Last season at AC Arles Avignon could be described as an emotional rollercoaster for fans, but that may be understating it slightly. If you were to liken Estevan to an English manager, he would be Sam Allardyce. Not due to the style of play but plucking young and old players from nowhere.

But he also is the master of the loan deal. He brought in Marseille’s Andre Ayew to bolster his side. This deal paid off big time and Ayew was sensational on the right wing. The 20-year old’s performances have impressed Didier Deschamps back at Marseille who says he will have more game-time next year. He was also impressive at the World Cup for Ghana, and was praised on this blog previously along with Kevin Prince Boateng.

But Estevan’s ragtag bunch of mercenaries were well worth their value last season in Ligue 2. They chalked up 16 wins, 12 draws and 10 defeats. The catalyst in Arles-Avignon’s season was an away fixture against Metz (The French West Bromwich Albion) on Matchday 34. Arles were 1-0 down but then scored twice in injury time. The winner was scored by Maurice Dale, who coincidently has left the club this summer for Unirea.

Arles-Avignon made tough work of the last few fixtures, which set up a winner-takes all match against Clermont on the final day of the season. Talk about tense. Here are the highlights from that game:

So after 5 seasons under Estevan, AC Arles-Avignon had reached the lucrative Ligue 1 for the first time. But the story doesn’t exactly end there.

You’d think after leading such a small club into the top league that Michel Estevan’s job would be safe for life. Well no. Former president Jean Marc Conrad was relieved of his duties in June after proposing a new contract to Estevan that the club simply couldnt afford.

Salerno and Perrot (Photo Jean-Pierre LUPI)

In step new majority shareholders, Francois Perrot and Marcel Salerno who promptly fired Estevan. After weeks of negotiations where even the players thought a new manager was imminent, the decision was reversed and Estevan will lead the club he built into Ligue 1. The two new chairman probably made the most unpopular first move possible, a decision which seems baffling but at least they changed their minds.

Both have invested a lot of money just to get Arles-Avignon to the division itself. Arles had the smallest budget of all the teams in Ligue 2 last year yet still got promoted. Promotion on €5.2 million is some feat.

The club probably weren’t expecting it, and the cost to bring the facilities at the club will take its toll. For example, a Ligue 1 requirement is for all grounds to have a capacity of 17,000 or more. The current ground holds at maximum 9,000 and work is under way to get the ground ready in time. Add floodlighting, press boxes, commentary boxes etc, and it’s clear that Arles have a massive task on their hands to even be ready for their first home game against Lens on August 14th.

So what are Arles-Avignon’s chances of staying Ligue 1? Without seeming harsh, remote. Most of the current players are Ligue 2 quality at best. Estevan has continued his reputation of bringing so-called footballing mercnaries by signing the notorious Yann Kermorgant. For those of you unfamiliar, he was the person who chipped a penalty for Leicester last season in the play-offs which sent them out. He’s also signed former Fulham player Hameur Bouazza, a player he will be familiar with since Estevan is of French-Algerian nationality. From Blackpool of all places.

Also interestingly, the man at the centre of the French national football scandal, fitness coach Robert Duverne has joined the club. If that doesn’t cement your reputation as a club of rebels then I don’t know what does.

Little is known of this enigmatic club from the South of France. Sure they may have a turbulent time staying in the top division but for a club of this size to even make it there, is somewhat remarkable.

Note: Credit to Martin Michelot for information on Arles-Avignon. Check out his fantastic blog about Ligue 1.