Last chance for Rennes' European dream?
By S. Willis
After being caught late in a 3-3 draw with Angers on Saturday, Rennes will be out to get back into the race for a European finish when they travel to Nîmes in their rescheduled Week 27 clash on Tuesday night.
Nîmes Olympique - Stade Rennais FC
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Although Rennes' revival and subsequent dream runs in the UEFA Europa League and the Coupe de France under new coach Julien Stéphan has captured the imagination of French football fans, the Brittany club are winless in their last three Ligue 1 Conforama outings and will be out to take all three points - and revive their bid for Europe - in Nîmes on Tuesday night.
Europa League beckons
The Week 27 fixture was postponed to allow Rennes time to prepare for their ill-fated last-16 UEFA Europa League return leg fixture against Arsenal, and now the rescheduled match presents an opportunity to chip away at the five-point, four-place deficit that separates them from sixth-placed Stade de Reims.
While Stéphan will have the electrifying Hatem Ben Arfa, who scored a stunning goal in the draw with Angers, available to lead the line, he will do without Mbaye Niang (rested) and Ismaila Sarr (niggling injury) - both of whom would miss 27 April's Coupe de France final against PSG with a yellow card - for the trip. Clément Grenier, in the same disciplinary boat, will start on the bench.
"We have a complete squad to choose from, and this match will be a chance for players who have played a bit less to have a chance. It gives us a chance to include some of our youngsters in our squad for the matches to come," explained Stéphan, who also has to contend with the injury absences of Jordan Siebatcheu, Romain Danzé and Ludovic Baal. "We will do our best to play a consistent mach against a side who are no longer under the threat of relegation. Taking all three points would be really great for us."
Meanwhile Nîmes are coming off a 2-0 win over second-from-bottom Caen - a result that broke a four-match winless run (three defeats) and took them to 11th - and will have a chance to leapfrog their opponents into the top half of the table as a tough home stretch of the season, which includes clashes with OM, Bordeaux, LOSC, Reims, Monaco and Lyon, looms.
"I think we have stitched up our top-flight survival," said proud Nîmes boss Bernard Blaquart, who coached the club back into Ligue 1 Conforama after a 25-year absence, following the win over Caen. "It's too early to be taking stock of the season, but yes, I'm very satisfied. Now that we have 40 points, we'll do our best to keep looking ahead and to finish as high up the table as possible. We can start preparing for next season."
Les Crocodiles will be without injured defenders Sofiane Alakouch, Fethi Harek and Loïck Landre - on top of the absence of midfielder Faitout Maouassa, whose loan deal from Rennes prevents him from playing against his parent club - to get the job done. However, they will have five-goal co-top scorers Denis Bouanga - who struck in the Caen win - Antonin Bobichon and Rachid Alioui on hand.
Nîmes Olympique: Bernardoni; Paquiez, Briançon (c), Lybohy, Miguel; Savanier, Ferri, Bobichon; Thioub, Bozok, Bouanga
Stade Rennais FC: Koubek; H. Traoré, Nyamsi, Mexer, S. Doumbia; Del Castillo, André (c), Bourigeaud, Hunou; Ben Arfa, Del Castillo