Rennes face Arsenal determined to put right a history of failure

Under Julien Stéphan, a manager emerging from the shadow of his father, Rennes are looking to banish a disturbing reputation. It would not be quite right to say Rennais is French for “Spursy”, but one of Brittany’s biggest teams (along with Nantes), and one of the founders of the French top-flight, have a pesky habit of flopping when glory is within their grasp.

The club does have a roll of honour, consisting of two French cups, but the most recent of those triumphs was in 1971. A younger generation of fans is more familiar with outbreaks of haplessness that seem timed to inflict maximum anguish. There was, for instance, the final day of the 2006-2007 season, when Rennes were on course to qualify for the Champions League for the first time, only to concede a last-second equaliser to Lille, who had nothing to play for but the thrill of sabotage.

Nicolas Fauvergue’s goal, still a trigger for a salvo of swear words around Rennes, meant the club slipped out of the Champions League spots and into fourth place, which equalled their best-ever league finish but was treated as a full-blown sickener, especially as they were leapfrogged by Toulouse, who were controversially awarded three points after their game against Nantes on the second-to-last day was abandoned in the 87th minute with the score at 0-0, owing to a pitch invasion by Nantes fans.

After that harrowing finale came a trio of cup ordeals. In 2009 Rennes spawned hope of a new dawn by losing to lower-league Guingamp in the final of their first Coupe de France final for nearly 40 years. To make matters worse, Guingamp are supposed to be the poorer relations of football in Brittany.

Five years later, Rennes made it back to the final and lost again to none other than – Guingamp. Which, in retrospect, makes losing the 2013 Coupe de la Ligue Final final to Saint Etienne, for whom Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang featured, almost seem merciful.

Granted, Rennes were co-winners of the 2008 InterToto Cup, but there were 10 other winners of that convoluted tournament in the last year of its existence and Rennes only played one tie, beating Ukraine’s Tavria Simferopol on a penalty shootout. The club have the good grace not to even list that achievement on their official website.

But ahead of their Europa League last-16 tie with Arsenal, Rennes have a run of which they can be proud. Never before have they made it so far in continental competition and they have done so in style, at least in the last round when they ousted Real Betis.

Julien Stéphan, left, observes his Rennes players in training ahead of their Europa League last-16 first leg tie against Arsenal

Julien Stéphan, left, observes his Rennes players in training ahead of their Europa League last-16 first leg tie against Arsenal. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Almost 4,000 Rennes supporters travelled to the second leg of that tie, undeterred by seeing their side twice fritter away a two-goal lead in the home leg, lapses that would normally have induced fatalism. Their faith was rewarded with an extraordinary 3-1 victory in Spain and now they dream of toppling Arsenal, whose visit drew ticket applications from over 90,000 home fans for a stadium with a capacity of less than 30,000.

“The manager has spoken a lot about this fervour,” said midfielder Benjamin Bourigeaud in advance of Thursday’s first leg. “We have to harness that emotion. We have to excel and show that Stade Rennas is on the path to becoming a great club.”

Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

Stéphan has done a good job of channelling emotions since taking charge in December, following the dismissal of Sabri Lamouchi. Until then the 38-year-old, who ended his playing career at 26 on the grounds it was going nowhere, was known primarily for being the son of Guy Stéphan, Didier Deschamps’ assistant with France. But his work during seven years in charge of Rennes’ youth and reserve teams gained him admirers, with Monaco attempting to lure him earlier this season to assist Thierry Henry and then Leonardo Jardim. The fee demanded by Rennes eventually put them off. Now Stéphan is showing his worth to everyone.

He is tactically astute, but Stéphan’s man-management has been his most obvious quality so far. The Senegal winger Ismaïla Sarr can always be relied upon to produce bursts of ingenuity but other, more mercurial, characters have also thrived under Ismaïla, such as the former Watford forward M’baye Niang, although he is suspended for Thursday’s match. And then, of course, there is Hatem Ben Arfa.

At 31, it is probably too late for Ben Arfa to disencumber himself fully of a reputation for posing particular challenges to managers. But at Rennes, where Stéphan has given him a free role, the former Newcastle player is providing evidence that he remains an exquisite talent. And there is surely no one he would like to prove that to more than Unai Emery, with whom he fell out spectacularly at Paris Saint-Germain. Under the Spaniard, Ben Arfa did not get a single minute’s action last season and subsequently left for Rennes at the end of his contract (though that was not solely the choice of the manager, as Ben Arfa also fell out with others at a club that he has begun suing for “discrimination”).

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Whatever emotion fizzes within Ben Arfa when he takes to the pitch on Thursday, Stéphan believes he will harness it well. “He is experienced and will manage things with a lot of intelligence,” he said. “I am sure he is going to put in a big performance.”

For Rennes to beat Arsenal would defy probability, but they are driven by a belief that it would also put some things right.


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