As Rennes host Arsenal in the Europa League tonight, we look back at how the team from Brittany made it to this stage; the furthest they have ever been in a European competition.
Group Stage – Game 1 and 2 – Rennes v Jablonec / Astana v Rennes
30 minutes into the return of Europa League football for Rennes, then coached by Sabri Lamouchi, and they welcomed it with a bang. Ismaila Sarr scored what quite possibly could be the goal of the tournament as he collected the ball 25 yards out and powered home a spectacular volley into the top corner. Joy quickly turned to frustration as Rennes struggled to put away their opposition. When the Czech side equalised early in the second half, it seemed that Rennes would disappointingly only draw their opening game. That was until stoppage time when Hatem Ben Arfa, on debut, coolly converted a penalty to secure all three points.
Next up for Rennes was a lengthy trip out to Kazakhstan as they faced Astana. Despite dominating possession and having a number of chances, including Remy Bensebaini hitting the woodwork, Rennes were made to pay for their profligacy as the home side put in an accomplished performance in a 2-0 victory.
Group Stage – Game 3 and 4 – Rennes v Dynamo Kiev / Dynamo Kiev v Rennes
The group favourites arrived at Roazhon Park in determined mood and took the lead midway through the half thanks to a piledriver from Tomasz Kedziora. Clement Grenier netted a trademark freekick just before the break and following a red card for Volodymyr Shepeliev, Rennes sensed an opportunity to take a valuable three points. Unfortunately, hope was quickly extinguished as a last minute Vitaliy Buyalskiy goal snatched the win for the visitors.
In the return fixture, Rennes were comprehensively outplayed as Kiev ran out 3-1 victors. The loss left Rennes close to an early exit and meant they need to secure wins in their final two games to stand a chance of progression. With their league form not particularly scintillating, it did seem hope was almost lost.
Group Stage – Game 5 and 6 – Jablonec v Rennes / Rennes v Astana
In their first must win game, Rennes rode their luck massively as they finally got the result they needed in a nervy win. Clément Grenier scored the winner, curling in a super finish from the edge of the area early in the second half. Lamouchi was left breathing a sigh of relief, as despite the home side having 22 shots, Grenier’s brilliance proved the difference. Lamouchi though would soon have bigger things to worry about.
Between the two matches Lamouchi was sacked from his role as coach as poor league form cost him. Julien Stéphan, the former reserve team coach, was drafted in as his replacement. After winning his first two league games, including an impressive win in Lyon, Stéphan was faced with the task of making it a hat-trick of wins which would take Rennes through.
In the end it proved an easier proposition than expected with Sarr the hero. He first reacted quickest as Benjamin Bourigeaud saw his penalty saved, with Sarr tucking home the rebound. Finally, he repeated his feat from the opening game as he scored another screamer, this time a powerful drive from 25 yards. With that Rennes secured group stage progression for the first time in their history.
Round of 32 – Rennes v Real Betis
Rennes were drawn against Real Betis in the round of 32. A tricky prospect with the Spanish side performing well in La Liga. Rennes came out of the blocks in blistering fashion and within 10 minutes were already 2-0 up thanks to an Adrien Hunou strike and an own goal from Javi Garcia. A Giovani Lo Celso effort on the half hour mark proved only a momentary pause in the Rennes onslaught as they restored a two goal lead in first half stoppage time thanks to a Ben Arfa penalty.
Sadly for Rennes, they were unable to keep up the energy levels in the second half as Betis pegged them back before equalising in the 91st minute courtesy of Diego Lainez. With a full time score of 3-3, Rennes could feel disappointed that their early brilliance failed to result in a first leg lead and after conceding three goals at home, Betis were rightfully heavy favourites going into the second leg.
Fortunately, under Julien Stéphan, Rennes have developed a greater sense of belief. Faced with a tough ask of going to Betis and getting a result, Stéphan again had his team come out of the blocks swiftly. Within 30 minutes, Hunou and Bensebaini had put Rennes and the travelling fans in dreamland. A Lo Celso goal just before half time resulted in a nail-biting second half before a breakaway goal from M’Baye Niang sealed a famous win for les Rouges et Noirs. It was a terrific performance from Julien Stéphan’s side, one which saw all the best qualities he’d instilled on display. Organised at the back, sensible on the ball in the middle and dangerous on the attack.
Round of 16 – Rennes v Arsenal
As a result of that sensational result, Rennes have been rewarded with a plumb tie against Arsenal. Over 90,000 applications were made for tickets to the first leg with a lengthy queue of fans camping out through the night in an attempt to secure their place. Whilst excitement has been growing to new levels, Stéphan has been his usual cool, calm and collected self, keeping his team focused on the game.
Arsenal will be coming up against a more organised, more structured Rennes than the one they could have been facing if Lamouchi was still in charge. Likely to stick to his 4-2-3-1 formation, Stephan will be without last round hero Niang and right back Hamari Traore with both suspended. Sarr and Ben Arfa will no doubt be the key men with both having a desire to run with the ball. Ben Arfa’s trickery and Sarr’s pace will no doubt be used to get at Arsenal’s defence, particularly down the wings which appear to be the Gunners biggest weakness.
With Arsenal missing the suspended Alexandre Lacazette, goalscoring hopes will rest mainly on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who returns to face a team he netted three goals in five games against whilst playing for Saint-Étienne. In fact the last time the Gabonese forward came up against Rennes, he provided the assist for the winning goal in the 2012/13 Coupe de la Ligue final, so he has happy memories of playing against the Breton side.
Another player returning to Brittany with happy memories will be goalkeeper Petr Cech, who played for Rennes for a couple of seasons prior to moving to Chelsea. The home fans will no doubt be looking forward to welcoming him back.
It will be a tricky game for Rennes, however if they can maintain the level of performance they put in against Real Betis across both legs on Thursday, there is a chance they could at least still be in the tie come the return leg at the Emirates.