It was a tense evening at the Emirates as Arsenal successfully found the balance between going forward to score the goals required and critically keeping a clean sheet against Rennes, backed by an impressive 5,000 travelling fans. The 3-1 first leg deficit was overturned as the Gunners won 3-0, although extra time loomed if the visitors managed to score, although with the stadium emptying out by the full time whistle, many would not have witnessed it. As it was the crowd was probably in the mid 40,000 mark, although compared with other European nights this season, it was respectable. And made plenty of noise.
Unai Emery selected a similar starting eleven to that which defeated Manchester United at the weekend. The suspended Sokratis was replaced by Mustafi, and as usual in Europe, Petr Cech played in goal. A word for the defence. They played well as a unit, especially operating a very tight offside line which was rarely breached. At times, the linesman at the North Bank end seemed like their 12th man (and in the first half, he failed to spot Aubameyang as offside in the build-up to the second goal). In front of the back five, there were moments of carelessness, with the ball being lost at times when it wasn’t necessary, Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil the chief culprits, but the team was not punished.
The first two goals came in the opening 15 minutes, which calmed nerves a lot. The opening one was a result of good play by Maitland-Niles and Ramsey, finished off nicely with Aubameyang converting from close range. The second saw the latter pull Ramsey’s ball back from the line for Maitland-Niles to head home. Aside from his contributions to the two goals, the right wing-back had a good game overall, and seems to have cemented his place in the five at the back formation as long as Hector Bellerin remains on the treatment table.
At 2-0, Rennes came into the game and for the remainder of the first half had more possession and spent long periods in Arsenal territory. Emery’s side weathered the storm, and after the interval the game was more even, with Rennes trying to score the goal that would put them back in the driving seat, and the Gunners being more aggressive, without recklessness, trying to secure the third goal that would at least mean a Rennes strike would not eliminate them.
Rennes did hit the post, which was the closest they came. There were plenty of hairy moments which were fortunately quashed by the offside flag. Lacazette and Ozil were removed and the new arrivals (Iwobi and Mkhitaryan) provided a bit of required fresh zip. Aubameyang scored his second of the evening to make it 3-0 and went in search of a Black Panther mask someone had placed for him behind the electronic advertising boards. Of course he has history for this kind of goal celebration. I figure the use of a prop in goal celebrations is a bookable offence because the striker was yellow carded by the referee. Let’s hope that doesn't haunt the team later in the competition. Aubameyang could not play in last season’s Europa League because he had played for Dortmund in the Champions League, and they ended up in the Europa League by finishing third in their group.
Things should have been made more comfortable, given Aubameyang had two further gilt-edged opportunities. God alone knows how he failed to convert the second of them, far easier than the chance he had for this first goal. Maybe he was thinking where his mask was. Fortunately, it didn’t cost.
What the match demonstrated was how Emery’s tactical knowhow addressed the problem of Rennes’ danger men. The formation crowded them out, especially wide, and there was a determined effort to prevent crosses. There wasn’t an excess of forward pressing, because the team were conscious of not leaving gaps at the back. It was enlightening that the side could nullify Rennes much of the time even with Mesut Ozil on the pitch. He was a body, an option to pass to, but had limited impact last night. It didn’t cost, but it will be interesting to see whether or not Mkhitaryan is selected ahead of him after the international break.
So a pleasing night’s work, and progress to the last eight, where there are some potentially difficult opponents. We await the draw at midday, with the hope that people are not given the wrong information and end up booking travel they can’t use. On one note though, perhaps the switch was a blessing in disguise. Were the second leg held in Rennes last night, anyone trying to travel back to the UK via Eurostar from Paris would have had to queue for three hours to get through customs at Gare du Nord due to industrial action, and several trains have had to be cancelled as a consequence.
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