It truly is full steam ahead for Arsenal, whose two-pronged assault on qualification for next season’s Champions League continues to gather genuine momentum. Into the top four in the Premier League and now into the last eight of the Europa League, a competition which Unai Emery has long since made his own, thanks to a thrilling and incisive victory at the Emirates.
This was another memorable win for Emery in the tournament he has won three times. It was a high-stakes, high-pressure affair, just the way the head coach likes it, and it ended with toothy smiles all round as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal’s goalscoring superhero, donned an extravagant mask in celebration of his second strike.
Aubameyang had intended to perform the same routine after his goal against Manchester United on Sunday, but could not find the mask behind the goal. Here, though, everything seemed to be where it was for him and for Arsenal, who blitzed Rennes early and then wore them down to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit.
Coupled with the victory over United, this was surely the finest few days of Emery’s maiden season in north London. It all seems to be coming together at the right time for the Spaniard, who knows that his attacking players will prove a serious threat to any side in Europe, let alone those remaining in the Europa League.
So much of the pre-match talk had surrounded Alexandre Lacazette, handed a controversial reprieve when UEFA decided to reduce his three-game suspension in time for this tie, but it was Aubameyang who provided the early threat with his pace and movement.
Rennes were stunned by the opener, their defensive gameplan blown apart by the speed and incision of the Arsenal attack. And almost before they had time to catch their breath, Maitland-Niles had powered the second into the back of their net.
There was controversy this time, with Rennes having every right to feel aggrieved. Again Ramsey and Aubameyang were involved, with the Welsh midfielder slipping a tidy pass inside the Rennes right-back. Not only was Aubameyang in an offside position, but so was Sead Kolasinac, who confused the Rennes defence by making no movement towards the ball. Kolasinac stood still and so did those in black shirts. Aubameyang simply lofted a cross to the back post, where Maitland-Niles was arriving at full speed to bury his first ever goal at the Emirates.
Emery’s side had started quickly in the first leg, too, when Alex Iwobi scored before barely three minutes had passed. In both matches Rennes proved slow to rise to the occasion, but in both matches the French side found an improvement after half an hour of action. Here they finally begun to play to the feet of Hatem Ben Arfa, the former Newcastle United forward who has never lacked for attacking threat.
A little more possession and territory did not equal clear-cut chances for the visitors, though, and Arsenal were already looking dangerous on the counter-attack long before the first half had ended. Aubameyang fired wide with a twisting overhead kick, while Ramsey then jabbed a firm shot into the palms of Rennes goalkeeper Tomas Koubek.
The two-goal lead was enough to send Arsenal through, but it was precarious. It certainly felt that way a few minutes into the second half, when M’Baye Niang’s low strike deflected onto Petr Cech’s post after Shkodran Mustafi had surrendered possession. It was not long before Rennes sliced through again, with Ismaila Sarr denied only by a thumping block from Kolasinac.
Ever so gradually the visitors began to seize back control, the Emirates growing antsier with each Rennes corner or forward surge. So up stepped Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan from the bench to reassert the Arsenal dominance. Mkhitaryan found Kolasinac in his favoured left-hand channel, and the cross to Aubameyang was perfect. Out came the mask, along with those smiles of relief.
Still, a Rennes goal would have kept the tie alive, and Arsenal could really have done with a fourth. Aubameyang, flying high after that most picturesque celebration, had two chances to end it for good, but prodded wide and then slid a scuffed finish past the post. The nerves remained until the end, but Arsenal clung on and Arsenal march on.