Post Match Review
A masked crusader robs Rennes to put Arsenal through in Europe
Arsenal find themselves in the last eight after a confident 3-0 win which rarely saw them get into second gear, but was enough to wash out their 3-1 first leg disappointment to advance to the quarterfinals of the Europa League. A Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang brace either side of an Ainsley Maitland-Niles headed goal was enough to see Arsenal overcome their shock defeat in Rennes last week.
Much like the games against Spurs and Manchester United, Emery’s men came out of the traps quickly. The home side weren’t remotely phased by the raucous away end, dimly lit with multiple flares.
After a fast start, a gorgeous interchange between Maitland-Niles and Ramsey in the fifth minute led the Welshman to glide a ball so inviting across the 6-yard box Aubameyang couldn’t miss. The Gabon striker cooly slotted his chance home, halving the deficit before the match had even begun to unfold.
1-0 in the opening five minutes is pretty much the perfect start when you are chasing a first leg away defeat. The Emirates faithful had just about settled down when homegrown academy starlet Maitland-Niles found himself unmarked at the back post, courtesy of a delicate chipped cross from Auba, helped by the entire Rennes defence falling asleep waiting for an offside flag that never came. He converted with his header and Arsenal were well on their way to what looked to be a comfortable win. Rennes look rattled, contesting every single decision passionately and diving after every other challenge in the hope of getting a reaction out of someone in a red shirt, but they had no such luck.
As the first half fizzled out to a close, Lacazette picked up a yellow card for a tackle that a man who has only just returned from a suspension probably shouldn’t be making, much to the dismay of the Rennes coaching staff, who quite clearly voiced their opinions to the linesman and fourth official. Not one to throw the towel in Arsenal’s number 9 seemed hellbent on getting himself his second red of the tournament, engaging in not one but two more challenges that could have seen him sent down the tunnel before he was eventually hooked off in the second half.
The second half started with Rennes very much on the front foot, Arsenal struggling to create chances of any note until the 70th minute. Helped by the injection of fresh legs Alex Iwobi and Henrik Mhikitaryan brought after replacing Lacazette and Mesut Ozil with 20 minutes to run, Arsenal began to recapture their intensity of the opening 15 minutes. Just two minutes after the double substitution, Sead Kolasinac fizzed a menacing ball across the face of goal where Arsenal’s leading marksman Aubameyang was there to tap it home for his second of the evening. Having brought a surprise prop to celebrate his winning goal against Manchester United the last time out but failed to locate it after his clinching spot kick, the Gabonese international made no mistake this time, donning an extravagant Black Panther mask to celebrate with all cameras on him. He even picked up a yellow card for his troubles.
Ironically, Auba would have wished for something to hide his blushes moments later, spurning two glorious opportunities to secure what would have been a confidence-boosting hat trick. Despite missing a couple sitters in the dying minutes, this was a different kind of Aubameyang performance. Up until his late penalty against Manchester United, he had made just eight passes. On Thursday night he was a different player, contesting and winning aerial duels, holding the ball up for his teammates and linking play. He ended the night with a 76% pass accuracy, which wasn’t too shabby for a player who did most of his work in and around the Rennes penalty area.
In a rather un-Arsenal fashion, the game was seen out in a professional manner. Rennes weren’t given too many chances to get themselves back into the game, even with what should have been a nail biting five minutes of added time. Arsenal will need to channel that maturity and defensive steel on the road, with five tricky away games left in the league campaign, each one a potential banana slip in the pursuit of a top four finish.
Unai Emery is on track to add to his already illustrious Europa League record, but like everyone else around the club, he knows there will be sterner tests for his side along the way, where they can’t afford to run it so close. Some fans may have been hoping to see Villareal and the return of Santi Cazorla to the Emirates in the quarterfinals, but Arsenal have instead drawn Napoli, who are sure to present a challenge with their experienced squad and the tactical nous or manager Carlo Ancelotti. Chelsea’s continued presence in the competition meant that the Gunners’ initial draw had to be flipped around, with the first leg now set to happen at the Emirates Stadium 11 April.