Ajaccio are enjoying a resurgence of late having taken 11 points from a possible 18 in their last six games to give themselves a realistic chance of survival after a poor start to the season. Many important points recently have been supplied by match-winning goals from new signing Brazilian striker Eduardo or in-form winger Christian Kinkela but one man who has been winning points consistently all season long is Mexican international goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Despite some heavy defeats ‘Memo’ has notched up three clean sheets whilst conceding 41 goals in 24 starts. Despite the heavy deficit, 38 saves and 85 blocks to date suggest he is one of the league’s most overworked net-minders thanks to his porous defensive unit. Since arriving in Ligue 1 Ochoa has proven himself to be a good goalkeeper and a solid shot stopper although there are some question marks over his aerial ability and command of his area given his small stature. That said, his reflexes and ability to get a hand or fingertips to some of the most hard to reach shots is incredible and have impressed many this season.
The Mexican has posted a handful of impressive performances this campaign-most notably Lyon away (1-1) in week 2, Nancy away (2-2) in week 17, Sochaux away (2-0) in week 19, Valenciennes away in week 21 (2-1) and most recently Dijon (2-1) in week 25. In those games he has produced some world-class saves, particularly against Lyon and Nancy and he has helped contribute 11 points in those performances towards Ajaccio’s relegation dogfight.
Olivier Pantaloni’s men are perennial strugglers; small and with the lowest budget in the league by far, Ochoa is one of their highest earners. The team looked certainties to get relegated until a surprising recent run of form and some astute January signings have injected new life into the side. The team now looks like they have a fighting chance of staying in Ligue 1 even though it will still be an uphill battle. Les Ours currently sit in 16th place, three points above the relegation zone following a vital 2-1 win over fellow strugglers Dijon.
Therein lies their problem; they are capable of winning important matches but when they get beaten they often lose heavily. These defeats then undo the hard work done in previous weeks and have led to Ochoa shipping 41 goals despite his reasonably strong performances. The 26 year-old has coped admirably despite his team’s struggles at times this year and has been their most valuable player over the course of the season. Popular within the side and a great character for the league it is hard to see ACA being able to keep a hold of him should a big club come calling this summer, especially if they stay up.
Ochoa’s arrival in Corsica itself is still shrouded in controversy. Since his surprise move and the initial belief that he had shunned a move to nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain, it emerged that Televisa of Mexico have parked him at Ajaccio, perhaps to boost the popularity of Ligue 1 back home which is now being aired regularly. The company pays over 50% of his wages and it would have been impossible for les Ours to sign him if this was not the case. The clenbuterol scandal sealed the deal because the club was the only one to retain a solid interest in the player after the stories emerged although he was eventually cleared of all charges anyway.
In terms of product placement, parking Ochoa at Ajaccio was perhaps not the best idea given that his team often receive a hiding when they play but the player has spoken about the club as a stepping stone since his arrival in France and although no fans are ever happy to hear their side spoken about like that, I think ACA fans can accept that he is capable of playing for a bigger team at a higher level.
Upon his arrival in France Ochoa declared in an interview with L’Equipe: “Playing in Europe has always been a dream for me. My arrival at Ajaccio represents the second step in my career.”
“Do I want to play for a bigger club in the future? Yes, that is the objective of every player.”
That was in July, shortly afterwards he was at it again. Speaking to France Football he said: “I appreciate that I have joined a promoted that is targeting survival, but it is clear that this is a stepping stone to other things and as soon as I get the chance to move on, I will leave.
“I am here because it is my ambition to play for a big team as soon as possible. Maybe in one or two years, we will see.
Whether someone like PSG or Roma come back in for him, as far as another Ligue 1 move goes it is unlikely. PSG have a solid number one and Ochoa will not move to become a number two. Other top French sides already have established number ones so it is hard to see where he will fit. In the meantime Memo is happy to be playing a big part in Ajaccio’s fight against relegation and so far, he and his teammates are giving it everything they have to stay in the top flight.
He said: “I don’t earn as much now as I did in Mexico, but that doesn’t prevent me from being happy. I am proud to be the first Mexican keeper to play in Europe and I have no regrets. Since I arrived I have felt much happier.”
Whether the Mexican sticks around should Ajaccio stay up to potentially get a taste of his first Corsican derby should Bastia reach gain promotion to Ligue 1, we will see. However, this season’s hard work will not have gone unnoticed and if he can continue to put on goalkeeping clinics during big games then there is no doubt that Ochoa will be ready to take the next step in his career. Next on the agenda though is a daunting trip to the Parc des Princes on Sunday to face title chasers PSG who will undoubtedly give Memo another busy afternoon.