Arsenal v Rennes – Players to Watch

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Arsenal’s visit to Roazhon Park on Thursday will be a special event in the history of Rennes, who will celebrate reaching the last 16 of a European competition for the first time when they welcome the Gunners to Brittany.

Although they lie 10th in Ligue 1, they have increasingly been a force in France’s top flight over the course of the season, with head coach Julien Stephan, appointed in December following the sacking of Sabri Lamouchi, improving the team’s fortunes by leaps and bounds.

If French coaches are typically reserved and pragmatic in their playing style, Stephan showed in the previous round against Real Betis that he is prepared to be adventurous and daring, to take a chance where others might take a step back.

Of course, they start the tie against Unai Emery’s side as significant underdogs, but they have a capable side and it would be wrong for the Gunners to underestimate their qualities. With that in mind, here are five players to keep an eye on over the course of the two games:

 

Ismaila Sarr (£3.17)

 

When 21-year-old attacker Sarr signed from Metz in the summer of 2017 for a fee in the region of €17 million, he did so in the knowledge that he was turning down the opportunity to move to Barcelona.

“I could have gone to Spain and join the great Barcelona, but leaving Metz to join them was too early,” he said.

“I saw Rennes as a club that will help me progress and reach great heights.” There is little doubt that he is doing just that, with nine goals and nine further assists in his second campaign in Brittany.

His outstanding attribute is his willingness to be direct, which has earned him comparisons to Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar. Indeed, only Nicolas Pepe (£6.15) has been subject to more fouls in Ligue 1 this season than this exciting talent, who graduated through the same Generation Foot academy as Sadio Mane (£5.21).

 

Clement Grenier (£0.99)

 

A smooth as silk midfielder who started out at Lyon as a play-maker but has moved gradually back as his career has progressed.

When he broke through in the Rhone Valley, he was tipped for big things but persistent injury problems prevented him from making the impact that he might have done with OL.

In the winter of 2018, he finally moved away from the club, aged 27, to Guingamp and played a starring role to help keep them in Ligue 1.

Indeed, so impressive were his performances that Rennes bought him in the summer on a three-year deal.

Has gained in strength as the season has progressed and though rarely a direct threat to goal, he does boast incredible ability in free kick situations.

 

Hatem Ben Arfa (£1.10)

 

If there’s one player on the field on Thursday with a point to make, it is Hatem Ben Arfa, who wasted more than a year of his career pinned hopelessly to the sidelines at Paris Saint-Germain. Of course, his attitude played a role in Emery freezing him out of his plans at Parc des Princes, but it is unlikely he sees it that way.

Known for his prodigious technical abilities, Ben Arfa has yet to fully display his qualities in Rennes, but has still mustered seven goals and five assists in 29 matches.

On the occasion of his 32nd birthday, he will see this as an opportunity to get his name up in lights once more.

 

Damien Da Silva (£0.72)

 

Stephan’s approach in Rennes has not been defensively orientated, but it is essential that they are solid at the back against Arsenal. In Da Silva, they have a rugged centre-back who has, on occasion, been known to score the odd spectacular goal.

Having spent the majority of his career in Ligue 2 and the lower reaches of Ligue 1, this is undoubtedly the biggest match of his career and an opportunity that the former France Under-19 international will not want to fluff.

The 30-year-old is a quietly solid performer.

 

Thomas Koubek (£0.54)

 

Lamentable at the beginning of the season, the Czech was dropped for Abdoulaye Diallo by Stephan when he was initially given the head coach post. However, an injury to the Senegal international opened the door for a recall, which he has made the most of.

He has kept five cleansheets in his last nine Ligue 1 outings plus a couple more in the Coupe de France.

Rennes may not, however, have progressed this far in Europe had it not been for a couple of critical saves in the previous round against Betis.

 

 

 

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About Author

A football journalist specialising in the French and Scottish game, Robin has been writing professionally for over a decade. His career highlights include attending World Cups in Brazil and Russia, and Euro 2016 in France.

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