Arsenal must recover from a first-leg deficit for the second round running if they are to overcome Rennes and make it through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League for the second year in a row.
The Gunners suffered a shock 3-1 loss in last week’s first leg at Roazhon Park, chucking away an early lead to leave themselves with plenty of work to do in North London on Thursday evening.
Arsenal cruised through the group stage of the competition with 16 points from a possible 18, progressing with a couple of games to spare, but they have made hard work of the early knockout rounds.
BATE Borisov put up a real battle in the round of 32, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Gunners in Belarus before succumbing to a 3-0 loss in the return fixture.
After avoiding a major scare in the last round, lessons were clearly not learned as Unai Emery‘s side lost by two goals against Rennes in last week’s opening 90 minutes.
Alex Iwobi scored early on, only for Benjamin Bourigeaud and Ismaila Sarr to strike either side of a Nacho Monreal own goal.
The turning point in that match was undoubtedly the red card shown to Sokratis Papastathopoulos shortly before half time when Arsenal were a goal to the good. With a full complement of players for the second leg, Emery will still be confident of progressing to the last eight.
Only once before has a side made it through to the next round after losing the first leg of a Europa League knockout match, however – Fulham in 2009-10 when famously overcoming Juventus 4-1 on home soil.
It is not often Arsenal take inspiration from their lesser London rivals, but that stat goes to show how big a task the Gunners now face following their first-leg collapse in France.
Champions League ever-presents for 19 successive seasons until last season, Arsenal run the risk of another campaign outside of UEFA’s flagship competition, though the manner of their display against Manchester United last time out will offer supporters plenty of hope.
Arsenal were 2-0 winners in Sunday’s huge showdown with United, earning the win through Granit Xhaka‘s swerving strike and a contentious second-half penalty from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The magnitude of the victory cannot be played down, as it ensures that Emery’s men occupy a Champions League qualification spot with the games ticking down.
Winning the Europa League will also provide the Londoners with a route into next season’s Champions League, with the added bonus of a trophy being lifted, so Emery is expected to continue with his policy of naming a strong squad.
Progression to the quarters will not be easy, but Arsenal have already showed this season that they have the character to bounce back when written off by many.
Recent form in Europa League: DWWLWL
Recent form (all competitions): WWWDLW
No matter what happens in Thursday’s second leg, Rennes have already ensured that this is the most successful European campaign in their 117-year history.
The Red and Blacks recovered from three successive group-stage defeats to claim the runners-up spot behind Dynamo Kiev, courtesy of victories at Jablonec and at home to Astana in must-win games.
Then came their shock win against Real Betis in the first knockout round, picking up a 3-1 victory in Spain after playing out a 3-3 draw in the first leg to set up this double-header with last season’s beaten semi-finalists.
Never before had Rennes earned a place directly into a major UEFA competition prior to finishing fifth in Ligue 1 last season, and they have more than made the most of their opportunity on the big stage.
In fact, only once before have they competed in the Europa League proper, coming through a couple of qualifying rounds in 2011-12 before exiting at the group stage without a win to their name.
That makes their first-leg victory over Arsenal all the more remarkable, given that they are also down in eighth in Ligue 1 this season, albeit just three points off fifth with a game in hand to play.
Rennes have only lost one of their last seven European knockout matches, including qualifiers, which was a 1-0 defeat to FC Twente back in October 2008.
Julien Stephan‘s side have also won four of their six European matches in which they have held a first-leg lead going into the away fixture, though this is undoubtedly their toughest test yet against an Arsenal side with the joint-second best home record in the Premier League.
That said, even a 1-0 loss will be enough to see the visitors through, setting them up for one of the most famous nights in their history.
Recent form in Europa League: LWWDWW
Recent form (all competitions): LWDWWW
Alexandre Lacazette is still suspended in Europe, meaning that Aubameyang will lead the line for Arsenal, as he did in last week’s first leg.
Sokratis is also banned after being sent off in France and Laurent Koscielny suffered a leg injury in the win against Man United, so Emery will be forced into a defensive reshuffle.
After handing Mesut Ozil two starts in a row, meanwhile, Emery must decide whether to stick with the German playmaker or bring in some fresh legs.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is in contention to return after missing the United game through injury, while Lucas Torreira seems certain to start as he is fresh following a domestic ban.
Elsewhere, Hector Bellerin, Danny Welbeck and Rob Holding are all long-term absentees and will play no part.
In terms of the visitors, Hamari Traore is back from suspension and should make an immediate return to the side, taking over from Mehdi Zeffane at right-back.
James Lea Siliki is expected to be back available after recovering from injury, and Benjamin Andre is another option for Stephan after sitting out the 3-1 win over Caen at the weekend.
Rennes, one of four clubs involved in the round of 16 that have never previously participated at this juncture of the competition, have a couple of players in their squad with previous experience of playing in English football – Hatem Ben Arfa and M’Baye Niang.
Arsenal possible starting lineup:
Cech; Maitland-Niles, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Guendouzi, Torreira; Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Iwobi; Aubameyang
Rennes possible starting lineup:
Koubek; Traore, Silva, Mexer, Bensebaini; Sarr, Andre, Grenier, Bourigeaud; Ben Arfa, Hunou
Head To Head
Last week’s clash marked the first time that these two sides have faced off in a competitive match, with Arsenal suffering their first away defeat on French soil.
The Gunners have faced French opposition on 25 previous occasions, 12 of those at home, where they have been victorious in only five of those.
Their most recent home match against a Ligue 1 club brought a 2-2 draw against Paris Saint-Germain in the 2016-17 Champions League group stage.
Rennes’ sole previous experience of English opposition before the first leg of this tie was a 2001 UEFA Intertoto Cup semi-final against Aston Villa that they lost on away goals after winning the first leg in Brittany.
We say: Arsenal 2-0 Rennes (3-3 on agg)
There is little margin for error from Arsenal’s perspective, knowing that if they concede once they have to score three times just to salvage extra time. Of the 18 previous occasions the Gunners have lost the first leg of a European knockout tie they have progressed just three times, though the most recent example of that was last month when beating BATE, which indicates that they have the ability to dig deep when it really matters.