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 scored 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 relishing another important moment in what has felt like a pivotal week.
Aubameyang, it is worth remembering, was ineligible for the Europa League last season, having signed from Borussia Dortmund in January, but his effervescent display led the necessary charge to see Arsenal through this time.
Unai Emery’s record as a Europa League specialist meant he was not short of what he described as “similar” experiences in terms of the need to engineer a second-leg comeback. He loaded up the attack, trusting all his most-experienced players in the front half of the team as he had in the victory against Manchester United on Sunday.
Emery had called for the Arsenal fans to come together with the team to create a hot atmosphere and 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. A flurry of scarlet flares were ignited in the opening minute, cranking up the temperature.
The mood soared another few notches as Arsenal broke early, and decisively, to help themselves to a goal in the fifth minute. They moved smoothly down the right, Aubameyang backheeling the ball towards Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who was able to find the advanced Aaron Ramsey in the box. The Welshman’s cross was stabbed in by Aubameyang. Arsenal’s taste for the task in hand felt suddenly sharper.
Rennes had been, understandably, perplexed by the news on Tuesday that Alexandre Lacazette was available, having had a three-match ban reduced on appeal. But before they had even had the chance to get a feel for the temperature of Arsenal’s attacking intent, they were badly stretched.
Arsenal pulsed forwards, sending direct balls for their forward players to chase. Aubameyang sped up the right. Sead Kolasinac thundered up the left and sent in a trademark cutback. In the 15th minute another surge delivered the second goal required to level the tie on aggregate and give Arsenal the away-goal advantage they craved. Aubameyang was again involved, springing to hunt down a ball at the byline, with more than a suspicion of offisde. 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.
AS IT HAPPENED: Arsenal 3 Rennes 0
The scale of the 3-1 loss at the Roazhon Park last Thursday set Arsenal that tough task of needing to ensure they balance out their search for goals with firm resilience. Now it was interesting, as Emery’s team had what they needed to go through with 75 minutes still to play. They knew the visitors possessed the quality to score an away goal to change the complexion, to reapply pressure. Their coach Julien Stéphan had spoken of his ambition to score and his players endeavoured regain a foothold.
After the shellshock of a shuddering opening, the game became niggly. Cool heads were needed and Arsenal tried to prise their opponents open again. Özil floated in a cross and Aubameyang took aim with a bicycle kick only to slice it.
Rennes emerged after half-time with emboldened resolve. Pressing higher up the pitch and with more intent, M’Baye Niang fizzed a shot against the post after Shkodran Mustafi dallied and lost possession.
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 putting pressure on the Latvian officials. The game was teetering on the edge of control, with both teams sensing another goal could be critical. Emotions ran high. Rennes broke dangerously down the right as Niang teed up Ismaila Sarr, and when Kolasinac slid in with a perfect block tackle he leapt up to his feet with a primal roar.
Emery brought on fresh legs and one of them, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, made an instant impact as he drove Arsenal forward en route to a third goal of the night. After a couple of one-twos he spotted Kolasinac bombing forward. A driven cross was prodded home by Aubameyang, who celebrated with the mask he had been promising for the last couple of games. He was not confident enough to wear it for 1-0, but 3-0 felt emphatic enough.