“We need to play with high emotion with our supporters but we need to take clever decisions on the pitch with our mind,” Unai Emery said ahead of the second leg of Arsenal’s Europa League last-16 tie against Rennes with his side 3-1 down from the opening match. The players certainly responded to his rallying cry as they blew the French outfit away 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium.
There was little sign of a hangover from their impressive 2-0 victory over Manchester United over the weekend with Emery naming an exciting attacking line-up, including the key quartet of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. The foursome have been together at the Emirates since Aubameyang joined in January 2018 – but in 13 months the match against the Red Devils was only their fifth start together. It was another perfect use of Arsenal’s big names as they contributed to a deserved victory.
The Gunners started at a ferocious pace with a fast-flowing move down the right giving Arsenal their opening goal. Ainsley Maitland-Niles cut inside to find Ramsey, who squared the ball into the box for Aubameyang to tap home from a few yards out. Rennes were visibly rattled by the early goal with a number of passes going astray and the faces of their supporters matched the nerves surging through the eighth-placed Ligue 1 side.
Arsenal weren’t going to let them settle, though, with Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Ozil dominating Rennes midfield two, the former German international picking them apart by dropping into pockets of space to get on the ball. And they were two ahead after only 14 minutes as Rennes were torn apart again by Emery’s outfit, but the north Londoners may be thankful for the lack of VAR in the Europa League. Aubameyang played a quick one-two with Ramsey, except the Gabon international wasn’t expecting the two, stuttering onto the ball – from an offside position – to cross to the back post for Maitland-Niles to head home. It stood and Arsenal were in an early dreamland.
The Gunners intensity dropped off slightly after the half-hour mark as the visitors started to come to terms with the spectacle. The home side, meanwhile, who were brilliant for the majority of the first half, seemed unsure whether to keep pushing for another goal or settle for the 2-0 lead that would put them through to the quarter-finals.
And they were given an early scare following the restart as M’Baye Niang hit the post with Rennes first real chance. An error-strewn period followed with both sides guilty of some slight acts of play-acting to give the match a stop-start feel. With the match approaching the final 30 minutes it was the French side that looked more likely to bag. An important block came in from Kolasinac on Ismaila Sarr, who the French side signed for a reported €17million in 2017 from Metz, with half an hour left to deny a shot on goal from close range.
Julien Stephan’s men, who had scored in ten out of their last 11 matches, were starting to pick up the loose balls in midfield, which sparked Emery – who didn’t name a single defender on the bench – to make a double substitution with just over 20 left on the clock. Ozil, who gradually drifted out of the match, was replaced by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while Lacazette came off for Alex Iwobi. The substitutions paid instant dividends.
Mkhitaryan played a lovely ball out to Kolasinac on the left and the Bosnian played a perfect pass across the face of goal into Aubameyang to score a tap-in and whip out a Black Panther mask in celebration. Funnily enough, the mask was placed in a bag behind the advertising board next to where Aubameyang scored. How many does he have placed around the Emirates?! In his post-match interview, the striker said: “I needed the mask, it’s for those who represent me … In Gabon the national team are the panthers.”
Arsenal could have put the match to bed shortly after. However, Aubameyang showed us all that he is actually only half goalscoring machine, half human by fluffing a sitter from ten yards out. And the Gunners held on, despite a few late scares, to become only the second outfit that has progressed to the next round of the Europa League after losing 3-1 in the first leg of a knockout clash since the inception of the competition in 2009-10. Guess who the other side was? Yep, Fulham against Juventus in 2009.
Aubamayeng has now been involved directly in 15 goals in his last 13 appearances in all competitions with 11 scored and four assisted. And despite being seemingly allergic to hat-tricks, he does love a brace, bagging six in all competitions this season. The two against Rennes take his total to 21 in all competitions for the season with only Sergio Aguero scoring more than him in the Premier League.
Another energetic performance from Aubameyang meant Arsenal carried a constant threat going forward and his displays will have a huge say in the Gunners success for the rest of the season. If their defence can hold tight, like they did on Thursday night, then Aubameyang could fire them to Emery’s fourth Europa League title in six campaigns.