Stade Rennais FC will be out to take their historic UEFA Europa League campaign as step further as they play host to Arsenal in the first leg of their last-16 tie at Roazhon Park on Thursday night.
Thursday, 7 March 2019
UEFA Europa League, round of 16 1st leg
Roazhon Park, Rennes
Stade Rennais FC - Arsenal FC
Before this season, Rennes had never made it to the knockout rounds of any European competition but, fresh from a superb display in Sevilla to eliminate Real Betis and win through to the round of 16, Julien Stéphan's in-form side are now looking to leave the past well and truly in the dust as Arsenal come calling at Roazhon Park.
"We're very happy, but we're not getting excited," tempered Stéphan, who had last weekend free to prepare for the clash after the LFP agreed to postpone their Ligue 1 Conforama Week 27 clash in Nîmes for that very purpose. "We're staying measured. Of course there's a lot of concentration, ambition and enjoyment in our preparations. The notion of enjoyment is very important when you're preparing for this kind of match; it helps you approach it in the best possible way."
Ben Arfa in the spotlight
Although Stéphan will be without forward Mbaye Niang and right-back Hamari Traoré, both suspended, much of the media focus is on Hatem Ben Arfa, who will be up against Unai Emery, the coach who froze him out of the PSG line-up for the entirety of last season.
"That's all in the past," declared Stéphan when asked whether this could be a distraction for the star forward, who set up two goals in the last-32 second leg in Sevilla. "Hatem has a lot of experience and he will be able to manage things in an intelligent fashion. We have plenty of other things to think about. This is Stade Rennais against Arsenal, not Hatem Ben Arfa versus Unai Emery."
One thing Stéphan won't have to think about is France striker Alexandre Lacazette, who will be out through suspension, but the London giants still have former Monaco, LOSC and Saint-Etienne livewire Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to contend with.
The highly rated Gabon international will lead the Arsenal line in Brittany, but Emery knows that it won't be a walk in the park for his side, who have one eye on a crunch EPL clash with Manchester United on Sunday.
"They played very well against Betis, and they deserve to be here at this stage of the competition," said the former PSG boss. "They are very well organised in defence as well as in attack and they have some very good players. It's an important match for both sides and we'll have to stay focused on our plan and our game in order to turn in a big performance."
The return leg will be played in London on Thursday, 14 March.
Stade Rennais FC: Koubek; Zeffane, Da Silva, Mexer, Bensebaini; André (c), Grenier; I. Sarr, Ben Arfa, Bourigeaud; Hunou
Arsenal FC: Cech (c); Maitland-Niles, Mustafi, Sokratis, Kolasinac; Guendouzi, Torreira; Mkhitaryan, Özil, Iwobi; Aubameyang