Arsenal's Europa League opponents are feeling spritely not only from a weekend off but with an injection of a new ideas from their bright young coach, writes Andy Brassell.
While Arsenal were scrapping their way through a north London derby on Saturday lunchtime, their upcoming Europa League opponents Stade Rennais were putting their feet up, with their scheduled trip south to Nîmes postponed. The French authorities, keen for a few more UEFA co-efficient points, thought Julien Stéphan's side should get every bit of help going as they prepare to face a side with a mountain more of continental experience than themselves.
Local - and national - excitement at Arsenal visit
This is a big deal in Brittany. The club received 90,000 applications for tickets for Thursday's home leg at Roazhon Park - that's more than three times the amount of people that the stadium holds - before they'd even gone on sale. The combination of the local club reaching the last 16 of a European club competition for the first time in their history and the thrill of welcoming The Gunners, so keenly followed in France for over two decades, is an intoxicating one.
Rennes are not normally a side to fire the imagination of non-partisan supporters in the Hexagon, but that might be starting to change. They were sensational in dumping out the fancied Real Betis in the last round, with a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at Roazhon followed by a classy, mature display to win 3-1 in the return in the bear pit of Héliopolis, which helped to line up this week's date with destiny. They are clear second favourites at 3.90to win Thursday's first leg, with Arsenal's vast experience pricing them at [2.06].
Talent now being harnessed
The squad has its share of talent, including well-known names like the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa and former Milan striker M'Baye Niang as well as the promising winger Ismaïla Sarr, who cost a cool €17 million. Yet the focus is more on the bench, and their 38-year-old coach who has stepped out from the shadows to garner considerable acclaim in France.
This season could have been so different for Stéphan (son of Guy, the long-time assistant to Didier Deschamps), who was Thierry Henry's choice to be his lead assistant when he took over at Monaco in October.
Rennes refused to let Henry take their highly-regarded reserve coach, but it was a shock to the former Arsenal striker and the rest of the league when Stéphan became Rennes' permanent first-team head coach less than two months later.
New man brings style as well as results
Sabri Lamouchi was fired after a 4-1 humiliation at home to Strasbourg, and Stéphan took the opportunity with both hands. The team won his first game at the helm in some style, 2-0 at Lyon, and he was give the role on a permanent deal to 2020 just nine days after being named in interim charge. Since he took over at the start of December, Rennes have moved on from a side plodding along without fanfare to one of the country's in-form sides. In 20 matches so far in all competitions, Stéphan's team have won 12 and lost just three.
In that period, a side considered as one of the less-noteworthy in France's top flight - despite a prolific academy - have played with real panache as well, with the Betis matches being the apex of that, and Stéphan has further curried favour with the fans but overseeing two victories over regional rivals Nantes.
Getting a result against Arsenal would catapult his burgeoning profile into another dimension, and even a score that kept the tie alive for next week's second leg in London would add to his legend. The extra time given to Rennes to prepare at the weekend is a clear sign that France believes something might just be possible.