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?

 

 

Advertisements

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

Champions League group draw thoughts (Group A-D)

Europe’s premier footballing competition once again welcomed the officials of the elite clubs across the continent to the Grimaldi Forum, for what is quickly becoming the most comedic and most drawn out football draw ever . Even I would welcome Jim Rosenthal into the proceedings in an attempt to make it a little bit quicker than Ben Hur. The faux-drama of the event was astounding whilst the Inter players who won the club awards looked uninterested at the format. Meanwhile Gary Lineker was called upon to pick letters, a task he seemed utterly bemused by continually picking out Group C. Conspiracy? No of course not, just coincidence.

Unfortunately UEFA General Secretary David Taylor was replaced by The Hook from Thunderbirds for this year's draw. Also absent, Liverpool FC

But rather than ramble on about how convoluted and tedious the hour was, I shall discuss the group draw in full, looking at player reunions, the obligatory group of death and of course rate the British clubs chances of progressing.


Group A – Internazionale, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente

Where better to start than with the holders, Inter. Now Mourinho-less, it will be interesting to see what sort of system Rafa Benitez adopts at the club, and obviously we shall get a glimpse tomorrow evening for the Super Cup Final. My theory is if it ain’t broke , don’t fix it. But as we know Rafa surely won’t be keen on adopting the style of a manager he hasn’t exactly seen eye to eye on key issues, though he has managed to keep the bulk of that winning side. He could well strengthen it if he gains the services of Javier Mascherano, although apparently he has no authority. Like at Liverpool.

This isn’t an easy group for them by any stretch of the imagination. Werder Bremen have always promised much over the past few years but ultimately never delivered, and they marginally edged past Sampdoria 5-4on aggregate this week to make the groups.  Thomas Schlaaf may have lost World Cup star Mesut Oezil but in the first leg, Aaron Hunt played well in that ‘trecarista’ role. They have a resolute back-four (although they were poor in mid-week) and some great midfielders in Torsten Frings, Marko Marin and Tim Borowski. Not to mention forwards, Hugo Almeida and Claudio Pizarro (nothing like his Chelsea version). They shouldn’t be underestimated.

Especially by the next team, Tottenham Hotspur. Harry Redknapp’s first Euro-trip outside of a 2004 booze cruise to Dieppe. Spurs were caught cold by Young Boys in the first leg, citing the pitch but it was mainly down to Redknapp’s insistence on 4-4-2 away from home. If Spurs dare use that formation here, they will be ripped to shreds, especially by Bremen. The lack of Champions League experience could also be problematic, with only Heurelho Gomes and Peter Crouch having games at this level.

Finally, FC Twente, the Dutch champions (who were in pot 4, whilst runners up Ajax were in pot 3). Again, a decent side, but question marks remain over whether new manager Michel Preud’homme, with Champions League experience with Standard Liege last year, can replicate Schteve McClaren’s results at the club. They’ve kept top-scorer Bryan Ruiz, but I don’t seem them making it out of the group unfortunately.

Winner: Inter Milan Runners-Up: Werder Bremen

Group B – Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv

Possibly the weakest group of the eight, but certainly one of the toughest to predict position-wise. Olympique Lyonnais now under the tutelage of Claude Puel, will be hard pressed to improve last year’s semi final appearance but so far things look good for the French side. Some great buys this summer particularly in Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand replacing the deadwood in Sidney Govou plus the emergence of youth talent from the U19 France squad (the only French national side to do well this summer) such as Alexandre Lacazette. Add to that safehands Hugo Lloris and Lyon look as strong, if not better than last year.

Benfica in contrast have been raided over the summer. Their best players, winger Angel Di Maria and Ramires both have joined Real and Chelsea respectively in big money moves. What’s behind is a shell of that free-flowing attacking side of last year who lit up the Europa League with style although Nicolas Gaitan is a super replacement, signing from Boca Juniors. I think they may be heading to Europa League once again.

Schalke’s big summer signing came in Real Madrid legend Raul, who finally departed from the club after 550 league appearances and becoming their top scorer of all time. Guess he wanted something new. He’ll revitalise this side up front, who finished runners-up in the Bundesliga. Unfortunately for them, they sold Heiko Westermann to Hamburg in the summer, which makes them look a bit weak at the back. But Felix Magath will certainly sort that out. Look out for Ivan Rakitic, who looks a tremendous good midfielder at 22.

Israeli champs Hapoel Tel-Aviv make their Champions League debut after beating Red Bull Salzburg in the qualifier and are relatively based on unknown Israeli players (I won’t claim to know them) but do have stand-out keeper Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama who single-handedly tamed Lionel Messi at the World Cup.

Winners: Lyon Runners Up: Schalke 04

Group C – Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor

Sir Alex Ferguson will be licking his lips at this group. Mark my words. United couldn’t have got a better draw really. Over the summer, United have strengthened slightly with the arrival of Javier Hernandez, the other emerging player from the summer tournament. Other signings include Chris Smalling, who probably isn’t at this level yet, and the man who can’t make a reserve squad. Bebe.

Valencia, in serious debt, offloaded their star players David Villa and David Silva. They aren’t as strong as last year but shouldn’t be overlooked in this group. They should still progress though, since Juan Mata and Ever Banega will finally get their chance to shine, you’d hope. Unai Emery is more than capable of producing great things from this side. Sure they aren’t up there with the other Spanish giants, but still a trip to the Mestalla will be tough for United.

But not as tough as the Turkish trip, the pot 4 team I personally wanted to avoid. A mid-week game away in Turkey is never an ideal situation, but in contrast Arsenal and Chelsea have it worse. Bursaspor won the Turkish league last year, (in fact the first time they have finished in the top 3) and are a slightly unknown quantity, although United scouts should find that they are a side with a lot of decent Turkish players such as Ozan Ipek, a tricky winger. Their manager Ertuğrul Sağlam however led Besiktas to an 8-0 defeat at Anfield two years ago.

Rangers, as Charlie Nicholas rightly said on Sky Sports News, should only realistically look at this as a money-spinner. The squad has effectively been the same for 2 years now, and if last year’s campaign is anything to go by this could go awry for them. James Beattie has joined to bolster the attacking options, but I don’t see Rangers making it far.

Winners: Manchester United Runners-Up: Valencia

Group D – Barcelona, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Just like Sir Alex, Pep Guardiola will be delighted with today’s proceedings. This should be a cake-walk for Barca with lots of goals.

Barca look frightening this year with the addition of David Villa up front. If he doesn’t bag 30 goals with the supporting cast behind him, he’s a failure. Bold claim, but it should happen really. Also, the fact that Pedro should be even better than his debut season and it looks a lock that Barca will go far in this competition. In fact, they are my pick, although I made similar claims last year. There’s also that Lionel Messi lad too.

Panathinaikos qualify as Greek champions, and they really started to adopt a Franco-Greek Connection with the acquisition of Sidney Govou. He could link up well with top scorer Djibril Cisse in the 4-2-3-1 system, especially with influential Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis in the hole. Other Greek nationals to look out for are Giourkas Seitaridis at right-back and Kostas Katsouranis, both very capable players on their day. Not to forget Gilberto Silva of course, in the holding role and I think possibly Panathinaikos could be this year’s surprise package. Maybe

Copenhagen aren’t as good as the side from a few years back, who were in United’s group. But saying that, there are some decent players knocking about particularly young centre-back Mathias Jorgensen who seems destined for a bigger club after scouting from several big clubs. Martin Vingaard is a decent wide midfielder, with a few international caps to his name as well. They also have a few Brazilians, like so many European clubs, such as Cesar Santin who has grabbed 25 goals since his arrival in 2008 and also midfielder Claudemir, signed from Vitessa Arnhem this year, who again looks very good for his age.

Finally, Rubin Kazan who pulled off some astonishing results in last year’s competition, notably that win in the Camp Nou. Can they do the same this year? I highly doubt it is the answer. They aren’t as big a force in Russian football 12 months on although the addition of Obafemi Martins could be pay dividends for them. Turkish journeyman Fatih Tekke, who looks past his best now at 32. Other than that, no real notable names in the squad, and they will be lucky to escape this group

Winners: Barca Runners-up: Panathiniakos

So, after perusing the first 4 groups, I shall return tomorrow to discuss the fates of Arsenal, Chelsea and the scariest group of death I’ve ever seen (weekly hyperbole). I shall leave you with that Rubin Kazan win last year and my new favourite footballer song.



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.

World Cup Preview – Group E

Like Group C, there seems to be one team who’s expected to walk the group whilst the rest battle for second spot. Denmark have managed to build a strong side based on a sturdy defence. Japan showed England that they aren’t lightweights either and play nice possession football. Then there’s the African heavyweights Cameroon, who have one of the best strikers in the world, Samuel Eto’o. The battle between these three sides will certainly be intriguing.

DENMARK

The Danes have arguably built their best side since their Euro 92 victory, although their last visit to a World Cup was also impressive. In 2002, they looked comfortable in the group until being taken apart by England. After missing out in 2006, they’ve recovered and rebuilt a fairly robust team for South Africa. Their qualifying group looked tough, with Portugal and Sweden also in there, but Denmark ran away with the group. They beat both away from home. Very impressive.

STRENGTHS

The spine of the team is where the Danes excelled in qualifying. They have two young and talented centrebacks in Liverpool’s Daniel Agger and Palermo’s Simon Kjaer. Kjaer is highly rated across Europe and has been linked with many top Premier League clubs. A good performance in this tournament will certainly improve both player’s value in club football. Denmark only conceded 5 goals in qualifying and kept 7 clean sheets, so this water-tight pairing should do well. Failing that, Per Koldrup is a decent back-up.

Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen proved a worthy successor to the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel, but an elbow injury late in the season could be bad news for the Danes.

The central midfield pairing of Christian Poulsen (Juventus) and Daniel Jensen (Werder Bremen) is also strong. Poulsen tends to sit deep and help the back four when needed, but can often run into space and prove a real handful. Jensen’s a hard tackling midfielder and is also well discplined.

WEAKNESSES

Don’t expect this side to dazzle the crowd with exciting wing-play, because they simply don’t have any quality on either side. Jesper Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen are both over 30 and won’t be running past many centre backs. The problem is even worse further back. Blackburn’s Lars Jacobsen isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the defence and AZ’s Simon Poulsen doesn’t have enough international experience.

Denmark also lack a top quality forward to support lone frontman Niklas Bendtner. Soren Larsen plays for German second divison side Duisburg and Mikkel Beckmann plays for Danish side Randers. Both don’t seem to have the quality to excel at the World Cup. European journeyman, Jon Dahl Tomasson was brilliant in 2002, but he’s 33 now. This underlines one of the key problems the Danish have: this side has a lot of veterans and a lot of inexperienced players.

KEY PLAYER – Niklas Bendtner

I realise several of you will question this selection. Admittedly Niklas Bendtner is incredibly inconsistent at club level but for Denmark, he’s used effectively. Bendtner is the king of tap-ins, and even then he’ll miss a few. He’s also struggling with fitness which also doesn’t bode well. But if the midfield feed him well, then Bendtner should play well

MANAGER – Morten Olsen

He’s been in charge for almost a decade now, and over that time has managed to create two very good Danish sides. He loves attacking football, which is the main reason Denmark won their group. With some very creative players at his disposal, he could well. However his unwilling to change tactics could be his downfall.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

PREDICTION – Too many questions surrounding fitness, they could make it out of the group if Bendtner plays well. But will get knocked out soon after.

JAPAN

We saw a lot of this side in England’s friendly and I don’t think anyone expected Japan to prove a challenge for England. But they were pretty impressive, holding the ball well and proving that England’s defending from set-pieces isn’t as great as we thought. Japan come into the tournament hated by their own media, mainly believing that Okada was a poor appointment. They have some good players but can they make it out of the group?

STRENGTHS

Japan have a history of producing top class midfielders for example Shensuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata. Yashuito Endo is a versatile midfielder who can act as an anchor or the creative man of the four. Makoto Hasebe has been impressive at Wolfsburg and will provide the attack down the right. Experience is provided by Shensuke Nakamura, who often scored superb free-kicks at Celtic and now at Espanyol. If the midfield generals perform to their absolute best, then Japan can pass it around like the best of them, and also be a threat from set-pieces.

Marcus ‘Tulio’ Tanaka proved, apart from scoring great own goals, that he’s a brutal centre-back. Dirty, yes, but he may be the inspiration that Japan desperately need. He can also score from corners as proved against England.

WEAKNESSES

Like Denmark, the striker pool isn’t great , bar Keisuke Honda. They lack a hitman up front which can often be the turning point for mediocre teams to make it out the group. With all their flair in midfield, you need someone to finish the moves off. Shinji Okazaki is likely to lead the line, although against England he had several chances and didn’t finish them. This suggests that Japan will struggle to break through tougher teams, and this is certainly an issue when you’re considering the weakest in the group.

KEY PLAYER – Keisuke Honda

The CSKA attacking midfielder has shown his quality in the Champions League this season and he’ll have to help the forward line if Japan are to make it any further than a group stage exit. Another great free kick taker.

MANAGER – Takeshi Okada

A football manager with a worse press relationship than Jose Mourinho in Italy. Hated when he took over, and has done little to make amends since. Harsh considering his record against big teams isn’t too bad. Reluctance to change players is his major weakness.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Group stage exit, mainly as they’ve never won a World Cup game outside Japan.

CAMEROON

It would be very harsh to say that this team is based on one player. But that is unfortunately the case. Samuel Eto’o remains one of the best strikers in world football, renowned for his finishing and off-the-ball movement (in my opinion the best in the world for it). Although this hasn’t stopped Cameroonian legendary footballer and dancer, Roger Milla from criticising Eto’o saying he does ‘nothing’ for his country. Milla would do better sticking to Coca Cola adverts with the ubiquitous Ian Wright.

Out of the African sides, they have the easiest task to make the knockout stages. But this preview isn’t just about one man, let’s have a look at the rest of the squad.

STRENGTHS

Apart from Eto’o, other young players are really starting to shine, particularly Alex Song, Sebastian Basong and Benoit Assou Ekotto, both playing well this season for their English clubs. Jean Il Makoun is also a great central midfielder, often the hard tackler. He can also score from long range, however his place could be taken by Song.

Achille Webo will do his best to support Eto’o from the wings in a 4-1-2-3 formation. He has a very good scoring record at international level. Keeper Carlos Kameni is a superb shot-stopper as well. The younger generation have arrived, now is their time to show the rest of the world about African football.

WEAKNESSES

The defence doesn’t look capable of maintaining the performances shown in qualifying. Geremi was a sensational player 10 years ago but he’s past his best, and he’s hardly played this season for Turkish side Ankaragücü. Creativity could also be an issue as the midfield doesn’t have an outstanding candidate for the playmaker role.

KEY PLAYER – Alex Song

Finally showing the reasons why Arsene Wenger brought him to Arsenal very early on his career. Has filled in at centre-back this season. Occasionally lapses are his main problem and he’s certainly have to be exceptional against Holland and Denmark if they are to take anything from either game.

MANAGER – Paul Le Guen

Won Ligue 1 with Lyon consecutively for 3 years but been in the doldrums since. After his brief and torrid time at Rangers, he’s found himself in the hot seat here. Bit of enigma, and that’s putting it lightly. Talented manager but he’s found it tough to win over the fans.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

PREDICTION – Team politics could undermine the best chance they’ve had since Italia 90, Le Guen’s unpredictability (plus not winning any warm up game) means a group stage exit for me.

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