Stade Rennais manager Julien Stéphan has insisted that Arsenal are still the favourites for their Europa League last-16 tie despite the first-leg result last week.
It was a memorable night for Stade Rennais last Thursday. Fans packed into Roazhon Park to watch their side secure a hugely impressive win over Arsenal but things started poorly for the Ligue 1 club. The Gunners went ahead inside three minutes when Alex Iwobi’s hopeful cross drifted all the way into the far corner of Tomáš Koubek’s net but the match really changed on the 40-minute mark. Having already been booked, Sokratis Papastathopoulos fouled Ismaïla Sarr and was handed his second yellow of the match and the Gunners were reduced to ten men. From the resulting free kick, 25-year-old Benjamin Bourigeaud equalised at the second time of asking.
Things went from good to better after the halftime break when Nacho Monreal headed into his own net to take it to 2-1. Rennais dominated the second half and even had time for a third when Sarr himself scored with a few minutes left in normal time. It was a famous victory for the French side which sets them up well for the second leg at the Emirates Stadium. Rennais take a two-goal lead to London but manager Julien Stéphan doesn’t think the tie is over yet.
“Despite the victory, for me, Arsenal remain the favourites for this confrontation because of their history and experience,” Stéphan said after the win.
“The only thing I think is that we have to score there, at least one, if not two.”
Arsenal, meanwhile, take a different outlook on the second leg after French midfielder Matteo Guendouzi disagreed with Stéphan.
“There’s no such thing as favourites. It’s one team against another,” the 19-year-old said.
“We have to stay strong mentally. We knew that after the red card it would be very difficult, especially being away from home. Then they scored straight after that, which put us in a bit of trouble.
“We didn’t do what was needed in the second half. But it’s only half time in the tie and they still have to come to our place. We’re very strong at home. And I believe in my team, my club and our staff.”
The bookmakers aren’t exactly clear which side is the favourite either. It’s almost neck-and-neck with Arsenal at 10/11 to qualify with Stade Rennais slightly shorter at 4/5 on Betway as of 11 March. The Gunners are the clear favourites for the match itself but may need to score more than two goals against a Rennais side almost tailor-made to counter-attack them.
Both sides enter the match off the back of a good domestic win. On Sunday, Stade Rennais followed up their 3-1 win over Arsenal with another 3-1 victory– this time over Ligue 1 strugglers SM Caen. Benjamin Bourigeaud grabbed his second goal in four days before Adrien Hunou scored and the returning M’Baye Niang added a third. It was a pleasing win for Stéphan’s side and took Rennais within three points of fifth-place Stade Reims with a game in hand.
Arsenal also picked up a rather important win on the weekend. The Gunners secured a 2-0 victory over Manchester United to climb up to fourth place in the Premier League. Goals from Granit Xhaka and a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty gave Arsenal all three points and a much better chance of a top-four finish and Champions League qualification.
It’s going to be a fascinating clash in North London on Thursday night. Stade Rennais were hugely impressive in the first leg and carry that two-goal lead into the match. They will be set up to counter-attack the Gunners and an away goal could kill the tie. If Hatem Ben Arfa and Ismaïla Sarr put in another performance this week just as they did in the first leg then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the French side reach the last eight of the competition.
However, Rennais must be wary of their opponents especially after last week’s Champions League tie between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. The French side took a two-goal aggregate lead into that match too but we’ll see if Rennais can do what their Ligue 1 rivals couldn’t against English opposition.