IT is something we’ve never really seen before. To prepare for their first ever European last 16 game, Rennes asked the French league to postpone their Ligue 1 match against Nimes, scheduled for this weekend, so they could have more time to get ready to face Arsenal on Thursday. Their request was accepted even if Nimes were never consulted, and while the Gunners will travel to Wembley to face their arch-rivals Tottenham, the Rennais will enjoy a free weekend.
For them, this encounter with Arsenal is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of their history. They have never reached this stage of European competition before and in terms of domestic trophies, the cabinet is quite empty, with only two French Cups, won in 1965 and 1971, in their 118-year history.
Now confirmed :
Rennes v Arsenal
Thursday, March 7
Kick-off: 5.55pm (UK time)
To be played at Roazhon Park, France
Arsenal v Rennes
Thursday, March 14
Kick-off: 8pm (UK time)
To be played at Emirates Stadium pic.twitter.com/NPggDqd1am
— The Arsenal 49ers (@thearsenal49ers) February 22, 2019
Rennes, currently ninth in the table, only four points behind fourth place, have never finished higher than fourth in the top flight since they were formed back in March 1901. However, as one of the founding members of the French first division, they are a big club in France. They have a very strong identity and they see themselves as the flag bearer for their region, Brittany, where football is very popular and where local derbies are numerous (Rennes, Nantes, Brest, Lorient, Guingamp all in Ligue 1 or Ligue 2).
This is a club with a big fan base and great supporters, with a wonderful academy which keeps producing big talents, from Sylvain Wiltord to Yoann Gourcuff or Yacine Brahimi to Tiémoué Bakayoko, with lovely facilities and a very wealthy owner. François-Henri Pinault is one of the richest men in the country and a businessman who also owns Gucci, Balenciaga and Yves St Laurent. He is married to the actress Salma Hayek and also had a child with the former supermodel Linda Evangelista.
Pinault was born in Rennes and loves his football. However, since his dad bought the club in 1998, their tenure at the helm has been difficult. On top of the absence of trophies (they lost the French cup final in 2009 and 2014 and the League cup final in 2013), they also invested heavily and badly in the transfer market, often overspending on average players.
This season seems different though. There is a new impetus with a young and bright manager, Julien Stephan, who has completely re-energised the team. He took over from Sabri Lamouchi in early December and has improved things massively. Rennes have lost only three times since he has been on the bench, with 12 wins and five draws. They knocked out Betis away in the last round of the Europa League and will face Lyon in the French Cup semi-final later this month.
Hatem Ben Arfa's still got it!pic.twitter.com/j6Ft4Yi5KZ
— Football Whispers (@FB_WHISPERS) February 27, 2019
The Red and Black like possession football and use the width of the pitch very well. They can also be versatile tactically, in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Marseille for example last weekend (1-1) or a 4-4-2 with no recognised strikers and a high press against Betis ten days ago (3-1). They have a match winner in Hatem Ben Arfa. The Parisian chose them to relaunch his career after a nightmare 18 months at Paris Saint-Germain. It was tricky at times between him and Lamouchi, but since Stephan arrived, HBA is pretty much back to his best.
Stephan was clever enough to build his team around his number 10. Ben Arfa feels valued, important and he has been repaying his manager with good performances. Rennes also have talented wingers like Ismaela Sarr and Mbaye Niang. In midfield, the captain Benjamin André has been one of the best players in Ligue 1 in his position in the last few seasons. At the back, they are not as strong as in midfield or up front, but the team has a great spirit and great cohesion.
Rennes know that no one expects them to beat Arsenal over two legs and with the second game at the Emirates. They will have nothing to lose though. They will approach this game with a lot of confidence, a lot of energy and with the belief that they can create a big upset. Arsenal usually do very well against French clubs, with only Monaco in 2015 managing to knock out the Gunners out of Europe. The other five French clubs who tried (Rouen in 1969, Pairs in 1994, Auxerre in 1995, Nantes in 1999 and Lens in 2000) all failed!
It is not a good omen for Rennes. But on the other hand, no French clubs had ever won away at Betis before and they did. So the Bretons and their fans will want to believe that another upset is possible.