As Arsenal finally overcame Bate Borisov to reach the last 16 of the Europa League, there was a sense of relief but also, with so many remaining top teams, there was also a sense of who would be next?
Qualification to next year’s Champions League is the prize for the winners of the competition and Arsenal are desperate to be back in the big time, to not only consolidate their place as one of the biggest teams in Europe but also to help the rebuilding process currently being undertaken by Unai Emery. The competition in the knockout stages is always fierce, and who will lift the trophy in the Spring is still open for debate – the bookies are often a good place to start: if you’re looking for free football betting tips, look no further.
To get in the inside track on Arsenal’s French opponents Rennes I spoke to Rennes fan and French Football Writer and Podcaster for Get French Football News (GFFN) and French Football Weekly, Rich Allen
JH – How did Rennes qualify for the Europa league last season and is the team any different from last year
RA – Rennes perhaps surprisingly qualified for the Europa League with a 5th place finish last season – benefiting from PSG winning both domestic cups and opening up Europa League spots for fifth and 6th. There have been two big departures from Rennes since last season – Joris Gnagnon, the starring centre back, who joined Sevilla and Wahbi Khazri, who resurrected his career with Rennes on loan from Sunderland, who has since joined Saint-Etienne on loan.
In preparation for European football, Rennes looked to bolster their squad and brought in a number of players including Clement Grenier, Jordan Siebatcheu, Damien Da Silva, M’Baye Niang and Hatem Ben Arfa. On balance therefore, the squad has improved since last season. The other big change has been in the dugout where Sabri Lamouchi, who guided the time back to Europe, was shown the door in December after a poor start to the season. Reserve team coach Julien Stephan, who is also the son of the French national team assistant coach, Guy, has replaced him.
JH – What is the form like currently for Rennes?
RA – Since Julien Stephan took over in December, results have been good. The club have only lost three out of 12 league games and have progressed to the semi-finals of the Coupe de France and there was the impressive win away at Real Betis to set up the tie against Arsenal. Whilst there have been stand out results including a win away Lyon, there have been a couple of disappointments including a loss to basement side Guingamp. With the club never having been this far in Europe before though, there will be a flood of excitement and anticipation, which should see the team, overcome any form concerns.
JH – Who are the key figures at the club, star players and players to look out for versus Arsenal?
RA – In terms of players, I am sure all eyes will be on Hatem Ben Arfa and Ismaila Sarr. Ben Arfa has had many ups and downs in his career but after the failings and disappointment at PSG, he is looking to get back on track at Rennes.
There have been glimpses of his best form but also hints that his petulant side still hasn’t gone – his failure to turn up to a training session a couple of weeks ago was met with exclusion from the match day squad against Marseille. On his day though, there are few players as unpredictable and exciting to see. Ismaila Sarr is another that fits that description and having been linked with a summer move to Arsenal, he is a player who will be watched closely. He’s lightening quick and genuinely loves to run at players. His final decision-making can at times be a little suspect but you only have to check out his goals against Jablonec and Astana in the group games to see what he can produce.
I am a huge fan of Coach Julien Stephan; he is a young person who has taken so much time to study the game. He is still learning but without a doubt, he has the potential to be one of the most promising young coaches in Europe. Finally, what kind of tactics should we expect Stephan has liked to set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Clement Grimier and Benjamin Andre in the central midfield positions? Benjamin Bourigeaud or Romain Del Castillo and Ismaila Sarr should play out wide with Ben Arfa playing just behind Adrien Hunou. A formation is pretty fluid as can revert to a four or five man midfield when on the defensive.
You can find Rich Allen on twitter at @rich_allen85 among many other places