Stade Rennais FC take a wave of momentum with them as they make their first-ever European knock-out round appearance at home to Real Betis in the UEFA Europa League last 32 on Thursday night.
Thursday, 14 February 2019
UEFA Europa League, round of 32
Roazhon Park, Rennes
Stade Rennais FC - Real Betis Balompié
Despite their difficulties earlier on in the season, Rennes have been building to this round of 32 tie with Real Betis for a very long time. The Brittany club, 117 years old and often at the top of the list of youth academies in France, are short on silverware - two French Cups (1965 and 1971) and Domino's Ligue 2 titles (1955-56 and 1982-83) - and have lost three cup finals in the last ten years (The Coupe de France in 2009 and 2014 and the Coupe de la Ligue BKT in 2013).
However, they are on the verge of turning the corner now that the club's directors have sprung for some bigger-name players like Ismaïla Sarr, Clément Grenier, Mbaye Niang and star of the team Hatem Ben Arfa. New boss Julien Stéphan has infused the team with a winning mentality, and they have won 11 of their 15 matches in all competitions since he took the reins in December.
This prodigious run includes eight wins at home, the most recent of which was an impressive 3-0 dismantling of Saint-Etienne, a fact that holds Rennes in excellent stead - as does the mounting fervour in the city - as Real Betis come calling on Thursday.
Stéphan: 'A privilege'
"It's a privilege to play this match; the city is getting right behind us, and that should help us on our way," said Stéphan. "I know there will be an amazing atmosphere at Roazhon Park - our supporters will push us all the way. But we will have to keep cool heads and not confuse motivation with excitement."
Indeed, Betis can pose Rennes some real problems. They topped their group - which included the likes of Olympiacos and AC Milan - without defeat and count the likes of Spain star Joaquin and Paris Saint-Germain loanees Giovanni Lo Celso and Jesé among their number.
"They are a side who have gotten some big wins, notably away to Barcelona and at home to Atlético Madrid.," intoned the 38-year-old, who will have to do without injured forwards Jordan Siebatcheu and James Léa-Siliki. "They are strong in possession and play attractive football. But we have broken down their game and analysed it, and we have plans to stop them playing out of defence."
Setién: 'Expecting plenty of difficulties'
However, Betis have won none of their last five away games (three losses) and coach Quique Setién is duly wary of this foray to France's northwest.
"Rennes have the capacity to play well and link up dangerously. I'm expecting plenty of difficulties," said the Betis boss, whose side is nonetheless enjoying their best season in years. "But I'm still confident in our game. People wonder which Betis they will see - the one that lost 3-0 to Leganes on Sunday or the one that won 2-1 in Milan? My side have a mental strength that means we can get over evenings like we had at the weekend."
Setién is without former Dortmund defender Marc Bartra, Soain youth international Francis Guerrero and former Barcelona forward Cristian Tello, all injured, but has an otherwise full-strength squad to choose from.
Stade Rennais FC: Koubek; H. Traoré, Da Silva, Mexer, Zeffane; Grenier, André (c); Hunou, Ben Arfa, I. Sarr; M. Niang
Real Betis Balompié: Robles; Mandi, Feddal, Sidnei; Barragan, Canales, W. Carvalho, Lo Celso, F. Junior; Joaquin, Moron