When the season started, long odds would have been offered on Rennes being the last Ligue 1 side standing in Europe. Yet midway through May, with Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon recently dumped out of the Champions League, Julien Stephan’s side find themselves as the unlikely final defenders of French interest.
Unlikelier still, they head into their second clash with Arsenal in an advantageous position, holding a thoroughly deserved 3-1 lead from the Roazhon Park leg thanks to strikes from Benjamin Bourigeaud (£1.13) and Ismaila Sarr (£3.40), which sandwiched an own goal from Nacho Monreal (£1.29).
But even a two-goal cushion is not enough to lure the Breton side into believing they are favourites to progress.
“Despite the victory, for me, Arsenal are still favourites in this tie because of their past and their experience,” Stephan admitted in the aftermath of last week’s victory. “I think we’ll have to go there and score at least once, if not twice.”
Just as PSG and Lyon were the victims of questionable penalty calls at critical times in their final European ties of the season, Rennes have suffered a blow at the hands of UEFA, who upheld an appeal from Arsenal for Alexandre Lacazette’s (£3.07) three-game suspension for a red card against BATE Borisov to be reduced to two, making the France international eligible for the Emirates match up.
“The timing of the decision is surprising,” the coach said on Wednesday, aggrieved that his side would only have one training session for which to prepare for this fresh and potent threat. “We didn’t see it coming. We’ll have to organise ourselves accordingly.”
“With Lacazette, they can play in several different systems and added one last weekend against Manchester United. Now we’ve got 24 hours to prepare.”
With the order of the ties having been switched so that Rennes were at home in the first leg, there is certainly a sense that UEFA has stacked the deck against the Ligue 1 side, despite the fact that it was a red card to Sokratis Papastathopoulos (£0.87) in the first leg that helped turn that match in their favour.
And while they have been capable performers in general since Stephan took charge, their away record remains a weak link.
All three of their defeats under their former reserve team boss have come on their travels, including a 4-1 loss against PSG, although they have gone to Lyon and won, while three weeks ago they produced perhaps their most impressive performance of the coach’s short tenure with a 3-1 success in Seville against Real Betis.
Arsenal, though, are an entirely different beast, particularly now that they have Lacazette, who twice scored against the Bretons in 10 outings as a Lyon player, in tow.
Unai Emery’s side have been formidable at home this season, with 13 wins in 16 Premier League matches. And crucially for the Gunners, on 11 times these victories have come by multiple goals.
Rennes are, therefore, correct to play down any suggestion that they should be cast as favourites, but they thrived in the role of capable underdogs seven days ago and will hope to do so once more.
With the talent of Niang, Sarr and Hatem Ben Arfa (£1.09) available to them on the break, they have the power to score the goal that Stephan craves, but their big issue promises to be keeping their hosts and Lacazette quiet.
If French interest in Europe is to continue beyond this week, it is pinned on Rennes, who are determined to keep their best continental run going for as long as possible, despite the fates aligning against them.