Rennes v Arsenal Thursday 07 March, 17:55 Live on BT Sport
Rennes' revival shows there's more to Ligue 1 than PSG
Seemingly small decisions can have big impacts in football, and Rennes' determination to hang onto talented youth coach Julien Stephan when Thierry Henry and Monaco came calling earlier this season has proven to be a masterstroke. Former Arsenal superstar Henry wanted to hire Stephan as his assistant, but his failure to get the deal done means his old club now have to face Stephan in the Europa League.
Since being promoted to replace the struggling Sabri Lamouchi, Stephan has had an incredibly positive effect. Rennes were outstanding against Real Betis in the round of 32, drawing 3-3 at home before producing an astonishing 3-1 win in southern Spain. They are yet to lose a home game since Lamouchi was fired, a run of nine wins and three draws. They have scored at least twice in nine of those games.
Midfielder Benjamin Andre is back from suspension, but right-back Hamari Traore is banned. Young winger Ismaila Sarr is a raw talent capable of jaw-dropping moments, wily playmaker Hatem Ben Arfa is still an excellent operator in the right surroundings, and striker Adrien Hunou has scored three goals in his last five appearances.
Wembley disappointment a good sign for Emery
Although Arsenal's performance at Wembley in the weekend's North London derby wasn't perfect, the Gunners were a whisker away from winning the game. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's weak penalty was saved by Hugo Lloris at the death, but it's a result that keeps Arsenal just four points behind Spurs, and a single point behind Manchester United.
Given that Arsenal finished 12 points adrift of the top four in Arsene Wenger's final season in charge, progress appears to have been made in Unai Emery's maiden campaign in England. Concerns remain about the team's defending (the dozy mistakes of Shkodran Mustafi are a particular concern), and the question "What to do about a playmaker named Mesut?" is far from being resolved, but the former Sevilla and PSG boss is doing a fine job.
Progress in the Europa League is something Emery has targeted from the get-go, and although the Gunners had a scare when they lost 1-0 at BATE Borisov in the last 32, they have generally performed well in this competition and have taken it seriously. After all, winning the UEL could be Arsenal's best route to next season's Champions League.
Alexandre Lacazette is suspended after a red card against BATE in Belarus, so Aubameyang is likely to lead the line. Mesut Ozil could start after only getting a substitute's role against Tottenham.
Gunners to short to take first-leg lead
Rennes have been superb at home since Stephan (who is the son of France assistant coach Guy Stephan) took the reins, and they are well rested after the French authorities postponed their weekend clash with Nimes to give them more time to prepare. Given how they played against Betis over two legs, they won't go into this tie with any fear.
Arsenal may well be too strong for Rennes over the course of the tie, but they have won just two of their last ten away games in all competitions.
I'll back Home or Draw here in the Double Chance market at 1.88.
Rennes' attacking instincts to produce a thriller
Rennes score freely at home, but they are hardly solid defensively. Five of their last nine games in all competitions have featured at least three goals, as have six of their last ten matches on home soil.
Both teams are at their best when they are on the front foot, so I'll back Over 2.5 Goals at 1.92.
Back Home and Draw in the Double Chance market at 1.88