Arsenal had to be perfect here to overturn a 3-1 deficit against Rennes in the Europa League. But that is exactly what they were, delivering their most complete performance of the Unai Emery era to win 3-0 and reach the quarter-finals.
Rennes might not be European royalty but they were much better than Arsenal in France last week. Here, Emery’s side made them look ordinary, blowing them away at the start, going 2-0 up and then killing them off at the end. Just like against Manchester United here on Sunday, Arsenal looked unified, focused, as if they understood their plan and knew how to execute it. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was the star, with two more goals, but with Aaron Ramsey, Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles playing this well, this is about far more than just the strikers.
Arsenal started with such speed and venom and purpose, proving that they had preserved every last little unit of the momentum generated by beating Manchester United here on Sunday. They came flying out at Rennes, getting forward, getting wide, and it only took 15 minutes for them to score twice.
Both times it came through the same three men: Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, the cutting edge up front. Aaron Ramsey, arriving where no-one expects him. And Ainsley Maitland-Niles, learning his position faster than anyone expected, providing an extra threat out wide on the right.
The first goal came from Maitland-Niles, crossing for Ramsey, escaping from Mexer, crossing for Aubameyang to stab in. Too fast, too slick. The second goal was more about quick thinking and clever angles: Aubameyang and Ramsey played a one-two, the Rennes defence stopped because Sead Kolasinac was onside, but Aubameyang played on, caught up with the ball and crossed it just before it went out of play. Maitland-Niles charged in to head home before any defender realised what had happened.
That 2-0 lead was sending Arsenal through on away goals but there was still far too much time for Arsenal just to sit and wait. They had to keep pushing for a third, and they kept creating chances. Aubameyang volleyed wide, Ramsey had another saved. Their over-enthusiasm saw Alexandre Lacazette booked for a clumsy tackle.
Rennes’ support were wonderful, the best to come here in years, but their players looked rather overwhelmed and lost They could barely string two passes together and even Hatem Ben-Arfa, one his day as good as anyone, could not make the slightest impression on the game. But for all Arsenal’s dominance, it was still only away goals at the break that were sending them through.
And if Arsenal needed a reminder that they were still walking a tightrope they got one right at the start of the second half when Shkodran Mustafi gave the ball away and Mbaye Niang smacked the ball against the post from 20 yards out. Had that went in then Rennes would have gone 4-3 up, and Arsenal would have needed another simply to take it to extra-time.
But something in the mood had changed here. Rennes had finally found their footing, and a way of playing to cause Arsenal problems. They went direct, using Niang and Ismaila Sarr. Their full-backs Hamari Traore and Ramy Bensebaini started to get forward and cause problems. And Arsenal, despite all that early momentum, did not know how to cope.
They just needed a change, a fresh pair of legs to alter the energy on the pitch. And that energy came from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He replaced Mesut Ozil and then with his first contribution, conducted the move that resulted in Arsenal’s third goal. Cutting in from the right, Mkhitaryan ran forward, lent the ball to Ramsey and got it back. He lent the ball to Aubameyang and got it back. He dribbled forward and slid in Kolasinac, bounding down the left. His cross was turned in by Aubameyang. It was more drive and purpose than Ozil had shown all night.
Still Arsenal needed one more goal to kill the game. Twice Aubameyang had chances for his hat-trick from close in that he stabbed wide. He had to settle for two, and Arsenal for three, but that was enough.
Arsenal (3-4-1-2) Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Maitland-Niles, Ramsey, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ozil; Aubameyang, Lacazette
Rennes (4-4-2) Koulbek; Traore, Da Silva, Mexer, Bensebaini; Bourigeaud, Andre, Grenier, Sarr; Ben Arfa, Niang
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