Hatem Ben Arfa, who had a spectacularly stormy relationship with Unai Emery at Paris Saint-Germain, said he spent some of this match laughing at Arsenal’s manager. The Rennes midfielder also said he had predicted his team would win here by at least 3-1 and is confident they can finish the job by ending Arsenal’s Europa League campaign in London next week.
This was a deeply satisfying way for Ben Arfa to celebrate his 32nd birthday. Asked whether the result gave him particular pleasure because it was against Emery, he replied: “No, my motivation was to play a solid match, to win and get ourselves into a good position to go through. That’s what was in my head. But I did see the same Emery, as agitated as ever. I looked over at him a few times and that made me laugh a little. He hasn’t changed.
“I told some friends before the match that my prediction was that we would win 3-1 or 4-1. We didn’t manage to get the fourth but my prediction was right.”
Emery’s agitation was understandable, though he brought some of it on himself. This was not just a defeat for Arsenal, it was a disintegration.
They got off to an ideal start thanks to Alex Iwobi’s goal inside four minutes but by half-time they were a shambles, with Sokratis Papastathopoulous sent off for a plethora of bookable offences and Rennes equalising through a phenomenal strike by Benjamin Bourigeaud. Nacho Monreal inadvertently turned a cross into his own goal in the second half before Ismaïl Sarr made certain the scoreline reflected Rennes’ superiority by heading into the net in the 88th minute.
Arsenal will have to perform far better than this to mount a comeback in the second leg. They managed to do that in the last round but Rennes are no Bate Borisov and nor will they wilt the way Emery’s side did here. Never before had Arsenal lost in France but this time they fell without honour.
This was also the first time that Rennes have reached this stage of a European campaign and they have good grounds for believing they can go farther. Arsenal’s progress has just become more difficult and, on the domestic front, Sunday’s showdown with Manchester United will not have been made any easier by this week’s events in France for both clubs. While United triumphed in Paris, Arsenal lost to the team standing 10th in Ligue 1.
Yet it all started so well for Arsenal. When Iwobi collected the ball near the left-hand corner of the Rennes box and curled a low effort into the far corner of the net. It may have been intended as a cross – certainly the home team’s goalkeeper, Tomas Koubek, was taken by surprise and even Iwobi looked pleasantly shocked.
Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Arsenal were generally in charge even though Clément Grenier’s influence grew in midfield for the hosts.
Then Ben Arfa won a chance to treat himself to the goal he surely craved. After being brought down by Papastathopoulous, he bent a free-kick from 20 yards around the wall but Petr Cech saved. Rennes kept up the pressure and soon Arsenal crumbled, their defensive brittleness laid bare.
Three minutes before the break Papastathopoulous got himself sent off for pulling down Sarr on the edge of the area. Bourigeaud fired the free-kick into the wall and then, when the ball rebounded back to him, sent a rocket into the top corner.
Photograph: David Vincent/AP
Now Rennes were rocking. Arsenal had a job on just to make it to half-time, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan temping at right-back as Shkodran Mustafi shifted into the centre.
With Mkhitaryan clueless in his new role, Bourigeaud began to have even more fun down the left, and Cech had to make a good block when the wide man came infield to meet a delivery from the right by Sarr. Arsenal were being overrun in midfield, too. Emery hoped that replacing Iwobi with Mattéo Guendouzi would introduce more solidity. Leaving on Mesut Özil was a puzzle, as he was bypassed continually by the dynamic hosts.
Arsenal, timid and sloppy, were being battered and were not helping themselves. So it was apt that Rennes went in front thanks to an own goal. Mehdi Zeffane, who had spent most of the first half chasing Iwobi, zoomed down the right before serving a cross that deflected off Monreal and into the net.
Pride eventually kicked in and Arsenal stammered a reply, Özil forcing a save after a neat move. Rennes went straight down the other end and forced a better one from Cech, who dived full length to tip away a shot by Ben Arfa. Moments later Özil was belatedly removed from the fray and replaced by Aaron Ramsey, who did little better.
Cech was called into action yet again to deny Adrien Hunou, after which Emery tried to batten down the hatches by putting on Sead Kolisnac for Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, but still leaving poor Mkhitaryan at right-back. “He did well there, I have no problem with him‚“ insisted Emery. Sarr then struck after James Lea Siliki became the latest player to fly past Mkhitaryan and deliver a cross.