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

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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.

The Unofficial World Cup Awards Ceremony 2010

Zuma and Blatter stuck in the Spanish mosh-pit Photo: REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

So there we have it. The new World Champions are Spain after a fiery encounter with The Netherlands in Soccer City. Many people expected a classic but in the end, the contest itself was marred with several horrible tackles and neither team really living up to the hype.

You can’t really argue that Spain were overall the best side in this tournament, purely for their retention of possession and their overall belief that a goal would come if they kept with the same style. But within that, some players clearly underperformed namely Fernando Torres, who looked out of sorts and dejected when he pulled his hamstring right near the end of extra time.

The Dutch game plan, to stifle Spain worked for the most part although they can count themselves lucky to have 10 men at the end. Both holding midfielders in Van Bommel and De Jong were forced to press the midfield strangehold and since both men tend to have short fuses, some horror tackles followed. De Jong’s kung-fu kick to Xabi Alonso being the worst of the bunch. Alonso will certainly have the imprint of that Adidas F50 on his chest today. A small price to pay for being world champion.

Howard Webb, I thought did an decent job considering the circumstances. Both sets of players were intent on stopping the other side by any means. You could argue he didn’t have the bottle to send off more, but history shows us that Webb prefers to keep a full compliment of players on the field at all costs (see Nemanja Vidic in the Carling Cup Final this season). Marca disagree with me calling Webb ‘abysmal‘. Dirk Kuyt claims that he cost them the World Cup, which is very rich considering the fouls Holland committed.

Webb was forced to be ‘card happy’ because of the nature of the game. Linesmen Darren Cann and Michael Mullarkey were superb throughout and that should be commended. Maybe Webb could have been slightly better (on one occassion booking someone despite not seeing the foul) but overall he was ok. Very controversial I know but Webb kept his cool, unlike the Dutch.

Holland had their chances but they couldn’t put them away. Arjen Robben was one on one with Iker Casillas twice and couldn’t finish either chance. He looked the most threatening of the Dutch, as Sneijder had a game to forget and I still think he’s been good, but not worthy of the Silver Ball. The Golden Ball, for the tournament’s best player went to Diego Forlan, a very good choice as he led Uruguay to the semi final.

Overall, the best side eventually found the goal in extra time through Andres Iniesta, who’s had a phenomenal tournament considering he got an injury right before it. Strange that a side which is renowned for flamboyant attacking play kept a clean sheet right throughout the knockout round.

I’ve decided to compile my own list of special awards to commemorate the first World Cup in South Africa. It’s been a great World Cup, full of shocks and hopefully these awards will reward the talent but also remember the truly stupid moments as well.

The Plastic Fan Award

Bill opts for a cuppa rather than half-time Bovril. Thank god he doesn't have a vuvuzela, I've heard his sax work

Honourable Mentions – Mick Jinx Jagger who supported England against Germany, USA against Ghana and Brazil vs Chile. That’s supporting three teams in three separate continents and only one of em won.

Winner – Marcel Desailly for his love of Ghana, despite leaving the country as a teen to play for France, a side he played for over 100 times. To be fair, after the whole French debacle, I don’t really blame him.  Kofi Annan is the true winner of the Ghanian Diplomat award.

The Jose Mourinho Award for Most Entertaining Manager

Watching Diego has been a highlight in itself at this World Cup

Honourable Mentions – Marcelo Bielsa for services to 3-3-1-3, Fabio Capello for being irate throughout and Raymond Domenech for a spectacular balls-up, and refusing to shake Carlos Alberto Perreira’s hand after South Africa beat his side 2-0. Nothing like a bizarre Frenchmen

Winner – Diego Maradona has to win this award. He exceeded my expectations just about, although don’t ask him to employ a defensive strategy. It still annoys me that Veron was left out against Germany. He looked very dapper in his chrome suit and his antics during games were a joy to behold. Off the field, he provided the funniest press-conference in recent memory. Diego Corner is a wonderful place.

“Just look at his face”

Greatest Spectator Award – Ghanian Pot Man wins this award by a landslide. He was seen at every Ghana game, complete with his famous cauldron sat firmly on his noggin. What puzzles me slightly is what’s brewing in his cauldron. I’d like to think it’s some oxtail soup but more likely is just plain firewood. Passionate man.

Best ‘British’ Goal scored – Wesley Sneijder vs Brazil

This award is to commemorate the stupidest phrase coined by the amateurish ITV commentary team, narrowly beating Mark Lawrenson’s ‘Hollywood pass’. I should probably blog about that alone, considering the ITV production over the month was so poor. Interesting to read that their final only got 3.8 million viewers compared to 18 million at the BBC, an indication of their quality perhaps. Anyway, any bullet header was given the moniker ‘British goal’ because as we know no other league can score a header from a set-piece.

The Jaap Stam Man of Steel Award – Xabi Alonso

See above video for reason. He’d have to be made of steel with that impact from Jong Kong Phooey (credit to David Stubbings for that superb pun he likely read in the Daily Star)

Das Wunderkind Award – Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil

Honourable mentions to Ghana’s Andre Ayew and Kevin Prince Boateng but it’s clearly these two. It’s hard to separate the two of them, so I haven’t. Both were key to Germany’s path to third place, and Joachim Loew should be praised for giving some under 21’s into the side. And boy did they grasp the opportunity. I wasn’t a big fan of Thomas Muller before the tournament but he worked brilliantly in Germany’s 4-2-3-1 formation, nabbing 5 goals and 3 assists on his way to the Golden Boot. Mesut Ozil was the spark of the front four and his positioning off the ball is absolutely superb. He’s not too bad on it either. If Bayern sign Ozil, they could have a magnificent side.

Ronny Rosenthal Award – Yakubu

Yakubu may well claim he was offside or that he wanted to destroy the Evian water bottle (other brands of water are available) but it’s a tremendous miss that kickstarted a national ban inadvertently. Chris Iwelumo claimed it was worse than his. Firstly, no it wasn’t. Secondly, having arguments about worse misses is ludicrous and lastly, Yakubu may well be remembered for something else in his career.

Most Patriotic – North Korea Jong Tae-Se for crying during his national anthem against Brazil. It was a wonderful moment that’s been ridiculed since. But playing for such a small (but most glorious) nation like North Korea on that stage must be emotional.

Least Patriotic – Any member of the French national squad. This also wins the Funniest Moment of the World Cup as France decided to revolt against their manager. They refused to train, Anelka packed his bags and sulked back to his West London flat and then they crashed out of the group stage. This tournament will be repressed from the memories of Frenchmen but savoured in crystal clear fashion by everyone else, especially for the Irish.

The Golden Zizou – Felipe Melo wins this award for a good player going into meltdown at a key moment. He was pretty much single-handledly responsible for Brazil’s exit, after scoring an own-goal (it was a own goal not Sneijder’s) and then stomping a mudhole into Arjen Robben. Dunga must be angry with him after he lost his job because of it. The best part about this was Brazil legend Ronaldo telling him not to return to Brazil in a tweet. Modern technology eh?

The Dennis Bergkamp Wondergoal Award

Honourable Mentions Gio Van Bronckhorst’s thunderbolt effort from 35 yards and David Villa’s solo run against Honduras.

Winner – Fabio Quagliarella’s wonderfully pointless deft chip against Slovakia. Brilliant goal that left Jan Mucha knowingly lobbed. He played in one game and did that, maybe Lippi should have shown more faith in the Napoli man. I’ll guess we’ll never know.

The Dimitar Berbatov Award – This is a special award for the front man who didn’t turn up. Honourable mention to Fernando Torres but he became a World Cup winner. Therefore Wayne Rooney wins it. Never really threatened the goal and provided a lacklustre performance. Let’s hope for better things in 2014 from him, it’ll probably be his last chance.

Unsung Hero Award – Antolin Alcaraz for being Paraguay’s rock in defence which saw them reach the quarter finals, narrowly losing to Spain 1-0 in the end. Paraguay didn’t exactly set the world alight, but were solid throughout. Roberto Martinez’s decision to sign him pre-tournament from Club Brugge could be a masterstroke.

Quick, lock him in there

Unwanted Hero Award – Paul the Octopus. Unanimous winner, he’s nothing special. Just because swims to the right hand side box every time and the whole media goes crazy. I don’t condone death-threats to cephalopods but I’m glad to see the back of an animal who didn’t even bet on his predictions. Has he not seen Ray Winstone’s massive disturbing face telling him of all the markets? Come on Paul you could have bought a nice new tank with that.

The Harlem Globetrotters Award – Germany easily win this award for entertaining team. Pure counter attacking football with loads of goals. ‘What more do you want?’ as Lawro would say.

Now for the big one – The Johan Cruyff Award. The award that is presented to the overall best player of the tournament (although unlike Cruyff now has a World Cup medal).

It has to go to Xavi. This is also a recognition of his talents over the past 5 years in general really, there’s no one who’s better at passing in the world or holding onto the ball, and ultimately this is what won the World Cup. Along with Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, the Barca trio looked phenomenal.

So, those are the awards, I’ll see you in 2014 if the world hasn’t ended. My tip is Brazil as it’s in Brazil


World Cup Preview – Group A

The football season has ended. Some pundits will tell you this season has lacked quality, with the departure of the league’s biggest player, CR-9, it was thought that the league would struggle to compete with its Spanish and Italian counterparts. But for my money, this season has been one of the most level contests going. The gap between the supposed ‘Big Four’ and the rest closed, and Spurs sneaked in for the coveted 4th place. The relegation battle was intriguing for a while, with several sides struggling with payments, and other teams such as Wigan received several thrashings.

But anyway, that’s all done and dusted. The greatest tournament of them all is up for grabs once again, this time in South Africa. So, in a change to the blog, I’ve decided this week to preview a group each day to give you an insight into the vast array of teams that will compete for the trophy. Some hot favourites, other complete long shots, the World Cup truly unites the globe with a veritable footballing fest. And I can’t wait for it.

South Africa is ready, are you?

Here’s a promise, it won’t be as complicated as Alan Partridge’s World Cup Countdown to 94

GROUP A

SOUTH AFRICA

Well it makes sense to start off with the unfancied hosts. When South Africa won the bid for the World Cup, it represented more than just making money, it represented an opportunity to show the world that they had overcome the past tragedies of Apartheid. One thing is certain, Bafana Bafana will make the tournament vibrant and full of colour. The sheer effort put in to make South Africa ready to host a World Cup is astounding.

The pressure is truly on for them as well. No host nation has gone out at the group stage and it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t be in the World Cup if they weren’t hosting. The team has gone backwards since they last reached the group stage in 2002. But, to say they don’t have a chance of making it out of Group A is truly disrespectful. There are some decent players within the side, and being on home soil will enhance their chances.

STRENGTHS – The defence is fairly strong and full of Kaizer Chiefs (the clearly superior version, as opposed to the band) players. Captain Aaron Mokoena will lead the hosts out, after a turbulent year at Pompey and will want to make his side not seem like pushovers. Fulham’s Kagiso Dikgachoi will partner Mokoena in the centre in midfield. He’s used sparingly at Fulham, but given a chance here, he will hopefully prove to be a decent player.

WEAKNESSES – The attack. Only Benny McCarthy seems capable of scoring for them, and he’s been a bit part in West Ham’s poor season. Someone will need to become a hero if South Africa are to make it anywhere near the knock-out stage.

KEY PLAYER – Steven Pienaar

The Everton winger has come off the back of an impressive season, often taking games by the scruff of the neck (see Man City home) and he has finally hit good form after disappointing in Dortmund and Ajax. Whether the contract discussions and constant links to the European elites will distract him, remains to be seen.

MANAGER – Carlos Alberto Parreira

A Brazilian with massive World Cup pedigree, after lifting the World Cup with Brazil in 94. That side were hated by the Brazilians, but South Africa have taken Parreira to heart in his 2nd stint as their coach. Also managed Kuwait in 82, UAE in 90, Saudi Arabia in 98 and Brazil again in 2006. If there’s one man who knows the World Cup, it is him.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 100/1 at best.

PREDICTION – I put a sneaky bet on with my housemate that South Africa would make it out of the group stage so I’m praying that they do. Realistically, it’s a long shot.

FRANCE

Never has a French side been detested so much internally and externally. After Thierry’s handball in the play-off for a place at the finals, the side, and the man himself has faced a constant barrage from the media over their side. Raymond Domenech has turned a side who were world-class into a unit that struggles. Just by looking at their qualifying campaign shows you how poor this French side is on paper.

STRENGTHS – The spine of the side is full of absolute quality players. Les Bleus midfield contains experienced players in Jeremy Toulalan and Alou Diarra  (both have had great seasons) plus adept wingers in Florent Malouda and the man to watch Franck Ribery. France are also blessed with two superb keepers. Hugo Lloris has been exceptional for Lyon, which has seen him linked with every European heavyweight going and Steve Mandanda has just won the league with Marseille.

WEAKNESSES – Age is a major factor in France’s decline, especially up front. Anelka and Henry aren’t setting the world alight anymore, and are both bit-part players at their clubs. Another problem is the lack of players coming through to replace. Karim Benzema hasn’t made the squad after a poor debut season as a Galactico, and the supporting cast don’t look up to much either. Domenech has called up forgotten man, Djibril Cisse to attempt to find a striker in some sort of form, after all he has scored 29 goals for Panathiniakos this year. I completely understand the decision to not take Benzema. In Euro 2000, France took Anelka, who at the time had been poor at Real. Result being that he didn’t play well in the tournament either.

The defence isn’t the best either with only William Gallas being the only true centre-back as he will be partnered by Eric Abidal.

Key Player – Franck Ribery

Bayern’s star player will hope to translate his club form onto the big stage. He has all the attributes to make an impact in South Africa. He will probably make mincemeat of most right-backs in the group.

Manager – Raymond DomenechRay-Dom adopts Wenger approach 'He did not see it'

Alistair Darling impersonator, with even less popularity. He made the final last time out, but that was with better players; players he chose to ignore this time, such as Patrick Vieira. His PR man has a massive job ahead of him to avoid Ray becoming Public Enemy 1,2 and 3. Well known for his proposal to TV girlfriend, live on air, after crashing out of Euro 2008.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 12/1

PREDICTION – Should walk the group but tension within the ranks may prove costly to Le Bleus

MEXICO

A massive turnaround was needed in qualifying for the Mexicans. Sven came and Sven left, with a side on the verge of failure to qualify from CONCACAF. But under Javier Aguirre, Mexico improved and continue their run of World Cups since 1994.

They are full of some decent youth players, namely Arsenal’s Carlos Vela, who has huge potential, yet it hasn’t had the chance to be unlocked under Arsene Wenger. West Ham and Manchester United are also represented by strikers Guillermo Franco and Javier Hernandez.

STRENGTHS – Counter attacking. With some many young players, the speed of the team is key, especially when Mexico are under the kosh. They also have experience in Barca’s Rafael Marquez.

WEAKNESSES – Not enough quality throughout the side, to mount a serious challenge for the trophy. They are also known as a dirty side, which is backed up by of course, Rafael Marquez.

KEY PLAYER – Carlos Vela

The 21 year-old front-man hasn’t shown a lot at Arsenal, but in Mexico, he’s the linchpin of the Mexican front-line. Arsenal fans should see more of his quality here than at the Emirates.

MANAGER – Javier Aguirre

The former Atletico Madrid manager found a side lacking confidence and points in their qualifying campaign. after Sven’s defensive play didn’t suit ‘El Tri’. Focuses on counter-attacking flowing play which is sorely needed in this group

ODDS ON LIFTING THE TROPHY – 50/1

PREDICTION – Lack enough quality to go far, so will fall at the first hurdle.

URUGUAY

The first team to lift the World Cup and 2 time winners. Uruguay certainly thrive on the big stage, but their recent record in the competition isn’t as glittering. They missed out in 2006 and will be looking for a marked improvement from Japan/South Korea 2002 after being knocked out in the groups (along with France).

STRENGTHS

The frontline. Diego Forlan is now a veteran in this side, and after leading Atletico Madrid to Europa League success, he’ll want another medal in his trophy cabinet. Alongside him , should be Ajax’s Luis Suarez, who is a terrific player, who will provide the foil for Forlan to pop up for important goals. Like he does regularly.

There is also a decent defence, with Juve’s Martin Caceres being the most talented. He’s made the squad but has been injured for most of the season, meaning his quality will have to outweight his lack of form.

WEAKNESSES

Inconsistency. In qualifying they beat Peru 6-0 but got destroyed by Brazil 4-0. Suggests that they don’t have what it takes to hang with the best countries in the competition.  But this group is wide open, with all teams in for shout of qualifying. They shouldn’t fear France, that’s for sure.

KEY PLAYER – Diego Forlan

He comes from Uruguay. he makes the English cry. The fox in the box who didn’t live up to the billing in Manchester. Coming off the back of a great season, including goals against Fulham and Liverpool in the final rounds of the Europa League, could this be Forlan’s finest performance yet?

Manager – Oscar Washington Tabarez

Great name and an even great following in Uruguay after he took them to Italia 90. Has also managed AC Milan and Boca Juniors throughout his career, so he clearly knows pressure.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE TROPHY – 80/1


PREDICTION – Going to be close, but I think 2nd in the group, thanks to Diego Forlan’s form.

So to go through, France and Uruguay. Both won’t go far. Join me next time for Group B  and to discuss Maradona in general

Ciao. I leave you with one of my favourite goals from World Cup 98.

Adrian Ilie, please stand up

Odds courtesy of bet.fourfourtwo.com