Aubameyang the hero as Arsenal beat Rennes and reach quarter-finals

Amy Lawrence at the Emirates Stadium on 14 March 2019

It was a night when Arsenal required superhuman effort and some heroic performances to overturn a two-goal handicap and seize their ticket for the Europa League quarter-finals. An accomplished team performance was crowned by the moment Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plundered their third goal and relished the moment with a spot of dressing up. His chosen character, embellished by the mask that had been waiting in the goal, was Black Panther. His teammates huddled round him cherishing another important moment in what has felt like a pivotal week.

Aubameyang had spoken of his hunger for this challenge and he led the charge with effervescence. But it is necessary to share the limelight around, and over the course of the past few days Arsenal have revived their season with compelling efforts in crunch fixtures against Manchester United and Rennes. Two meaningful wins, two clean sheets, many influential performances: Laurent Koscielny deserves plaudits for inspiring the defence, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka took responsibility in midfield, Ainsley Maitland-Niles found new levels of positional nous, confidence and even popped up with one of the goals.

All in all it left Unai Emery wondering about how much his team developed over this period when they gave big answers to a couple of complicated questions. “We can be proud of our players today,” he said. “It was a very difficult week against Man United Sunday and today against Rennes after our defeat there. Playing under pressure is good. Growing up under pressure – for each player, for the team, you feel difficult moments to give us our best performance. It is good for our confidence to feel that.”

Emery loaded up the attack, again trusting all his most experienced players in the front half of the team, and he was rewarded as they surged into a vital lead with two goals in the first 15 minutes. No sooner had the game kicked off than the Emirates was filling with smoke and raucous noise. It happened to come from the Clock End, which housed the boisterous travelling party of 5,000 Rennes supporters who ignited a flurry of scarlet flares.

Rennes fans set off flares in the away end at the Emirates Stadium.
Rennes fans set off flares in the away end at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal’s players kept their cool, though. They moved smoothly down the right, Aubameyang backheeling the ball towards Maitland-Niles, who was able to find the advanced Ramsey in the box. The Welshman’s cross was stabbed in by Aubameyang.

Arsenal pulsed forwards, sending direct balls to chase, and doubled their lead as another surge delivered the second goal required to equalise on aggregate. Aubameyang was again involved, springing to hunt down a ball at the byline, which replays showed was offside. Sead Kolasinac was certainly offside but tried to stay inactive. Aubameyang pressed on. Amid the brief, confused pause as the Rennes defence hoped for a refereeing intervention, the Gabon forward kept his focus to loft a cross towards the far post where Maitland-Niles ghosted in to plant his header past Tomas Koubek.

Remaining teams
Arsenal, Benfica, Chelsea, Eintracht Frankfurt, Napoli, Slavia Prague, Valencia, Villarreal

Quarter-final draw 
Friday at midday in Nyom
(ties to be played on 11 and 18 April)

Rennes’ coach, Julien Stéphan, was understandably frustrated with the decision. The tie had dealt him some rough hands, with the initial switch of venue and Alexandre Lacazette’s suddenly reduced suspension. “It’s clearly an offside and it’s an important decision in this game,” he lamented.

Now Emery’s team had what they needed to go through with 75 minutes still to play and they relinquished some of their early control. Rennes possessed the quality to score an away goal to change the complexion, to reapply pressure, so keeping composure was essential.

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The game became niggly. Not only were the Ligue 1 team trying to unsettle Arsenal with their play, they were also trying to disrupt with theatrical episodes whenever they felt they could appeal for anything that might resemble a foul and to put pressure on the Latvian officials.

The game teetered on the edge of control, as it hung in the balance with both teams sensing another goal could be critical. Emotions ran high. M’Baye Niang fizzed a shot against the post after Shkodran Mustafi dallied and lost possession, then teed up Ismaila Sarr, and when Kolasinac slid in with a perfect block tackle he leapt up with a primal roar. Later in the game Petr Cech needed to make sure to keep out Adrien Hunou.

Arsenal’s third eased some pressure as Aubameyang prodded home Kolasinac’s fizzing cross after excellent build-up play instigated by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The striker squandered a couple of golden chances for a hat-trick. But a final score of 3-0 was emphatic enough.

With momentum rising, Arsenal now have a break and will fly off to Dubai for some sunshine and a friendly before picking up.

Emery wants his players to enjoy the feel-good factor and then prepare for the next push. The Europa League campaign might have the all-important carrot of a Champions League place for the winners but the silver polish motivates him just as much.

He wants a trophy. “It is one title,” he enthused. “I said to my players I am excited for this competition. We can feel the possibility to win a title with difficult moment like this.”

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