Arsenal produced a superb comeback to claim a quarter final spot at the expense of Rennes on Thursday night.
The Gunners went into the Europa Leg second leg clash with a two-goal deficit to make up but some excellent attacking play helped them blow away a stubborn, niggling Rennes defence that tried its best to make life difficult.
A double strike from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and an Ainsley Maitland-Niles effort were the difference between the sides on the night, as Rennes’ spoiling tactics ultimately came up short.
Goals were the name of the game for Arsenal in the first half and they delivered in emphatic style. The first goal was always likely to be a decisive one in this tie so it was doubly-fortunate that the Gunners scored it inside the first five minutes.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reacted quickest to latch onto Aaron Ramsey’s low cross, applying a smart finish to set the tone for the opening 20 minutes.
Unai Emery plumped for an attacking side, moulded in the image of the team that started against Manchester United in the league, and its remit was clear: score goals.
With the momentum behind them and Rennes looking hapless, the hosts bagged a key second goal shortly after as Aubameyang made the most of a tight offside call and a static, ball-watching Rennes defence to cross deep for Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
The young right back had a superb half all round, effective both going forward and watchful at the back. Concentration has often been a problem for the Englishman but he was switched on throughout the half and the French side got little change out of him.
After a blistering opening salvo, the Gunners shifted down a few gears and settled into a period of complacent play that invited pressure from the emboldened hosts. As it was, they did little to trouble Petr Cech’s goal but they were allowed back into the game in a way that Emery would doubtless had been unhappy with.
Scoring twice early on, and therby taking the aggregate lead in the tie, sucked the life out of the Gunners a little and it took until the final 10 minutes for them to re-establish a measure of control. Against better sides, they won’t be afforded that sort of in-game lull but I can see how achieving an objective so early on can allow a little doubt to creep in as the players re-assessed their goals.
Unfortunately, a little of that ‘stick-or-twist’ mentality stayed with Arsenal into the second half as Rennes stepped up their efforts and the hosts dropped a few yards deeper, looking to protect their lead but mindful of the opportunities on the counter-attack.
The visitors came within inches of taking the lead in the tie again when Shkodran Mustafi pulled a Mustafi in a dangerous area and the woodwork was pressed into action to deny a low shot that seemed to have beaten Cech.
It was timely reminder that, for all their good work in the first half, the job was not done and, as the game progressed, the skulduggery of the visitors made it near impossible for the hosts to put together a sequence of passes or fashion good attacking opportunities.
It was a pattern that continued throughout the second period as a scrappy, ill-tempered game failed to get going. Rennes were intent on spoiling and keeping themselves in the game for a late assault and, in fairness, they were fairly successful in doing just that.
Holding onto leads and defending for long periods is not really Arsenal’s forte and the match had settled into a concerning pattern before Emery made a double change that saw Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil hooked for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi. It was a necessary move and one which allowed Arsenal to get control of the midfield once more.
In fact, it had a near instant impact as, moments after Iwobi had spurned a good shooting chance, Mkhitaryan found space to release Kolasinac, whose low cross arrowed into Aubameyang, who tucked the ball away with aplomb.
Credit must go to Emery for his changes, which were perfectly timed and had a demonstrable, near-immediate effect on a drifting game. As he has shown on a number of occasions this season, he is an astute reader of the game.
Arsenal might have made life easier for themselves in the closing minutes of the game but Aubameyang conspired to miss two golden opportunities to put the tie to bed. That meant a nervy final 10 minutes for fans everywhere but, in the end, they saw the time in relative comfort. There were even a few cameos of the old Arsenal offside line of old for the nostalgic among us to enjoy.
In the end, we made this tie much harder than it ever needed to be, but a second-leg performance that was full of energy and positivity ensured the job was done in the end. Sterner tests await in the last eight but it was a brilliant way to sign off before the international break. Mission improbable achieved!