It really did not require a super hero to send Arsenal through in Europe on Thursday night. Still, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is as near as they have got to one around these parts, so it was only right that he should get to score the goal, and wear the mask, that confirmed their superiority.
Until Aubameyang scored his second of the night after 76 minutes, Arsenal were relying on UEFA’s away goals rule to secure their progress into the last eight. Aubameyang gave them an outright aggregate win. He celebrated by plucking a Black Panther mask from behind a hoarding, pulling it on and performing the crossed armed Wakanda Forever salute. He had it ready for the match with Manchester United, too, but when he scored couldn’t find it. Aren’t super heroes meant to have x-ray vision for that sort of stuff?
No matter. Wakanda is a fictional sub-Saharan African state invented by Marvel Comics, and the birthplace of their first black superhero. Since Black Panther became a hugely successful film, the Wakanda Forever sign has come to signify black excellence. Aubameyang certainly represents that. In his last 13 home games for Arsenal, he has been involved in 15 goals now: scoring 11, with four assists. He was the difference again last night, picking off Rennes just when they had started to look dangerous.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored twice for Arsenal as they reached the Europa League quarter-final stages
The pacy striker channelled his inner superhero as Arsenal overturned a two-goal deficit from the first leg
Aubameyang scored his second, and Arsenal’s third, of the night with this close-range finish on 72 minutes
To celebrate his goal, the 29-year-old produced the iconic Wakanda Forever celebration from the film Black Panther
He was quickly congratulated by his team-mates as Arsenal extended their return-leg lead over their French opponents
Arsenal: Cech, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette.
Subs: Leno, Mkhitaryan, Torreira, Iwobi, Suarez, Guendouzi, Nketiah.
Rennes: Koubek, Traore, Da Silva, Mexer, Bensebaini, Bourigeaud, Andre, Grenier, Sarr, Ben Arfa, Niang.
Subs: Badiashile, Zeffane, Doumbia, Lea Siliki, Del Castillo, Hunou, Gelin.
Referee: Andris Treimanis (Latvia)
It was a straightforward goal; a lovely cross by Sead Kolasinac, finished from close range by Aubameyang. He is a real poacher’s striker, always in and around the six-yard box, putting pressure on the last line of defence. Rennes could not cope with him. The best team won, even if Arsenal made harder work of it than they should.
It has been quite a week for English clubs in Europe: Manchester City’s seven past Schalke, Chelsea’s five in Kiev, Liverpool’s three against Bayern Munich the pick of the bunch. And Arsenal had far too much for Rennes. Looking at their casual dominance here – they were going through from the 15th minute – it is hard to believe they lost the first leg 3-1. It means the Champions League safety blanket – back door qualification as Europa League winners – remains, even if Arsenal may not need it given their current position, in fourth. Still, it has revitalised this competition – as Unai Emery’s reaction at the end showed.
By comparison, obviously, the Europa League is the poor relation of UEFA club competitions, nevertheless as the teams took the pitch, a stadium announcer attempted to add some spice to the occasion. ‘Welcome Rennes… and the Arsenal!’ he roared as if this was a clash of gladiators. Sadly, it soon became plain that the Emirates could have welcomed Rennes and Stimpy and the visitors would still have had their hands full.
The base level scoreline for Arsenal to progress was 2-0, and they had that lead within 15 minutes. If they did not add to it before half-time it was more because total control of a game does not always lend itself to laser focus. As the first-half neared conclusion Arsenal were playing training ground football. Mesut Ozil crossed and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tried to finish it with a bicycle kick. A lovely pass from Ozil was then teed up by Alexandre Lacazette for Aaron Ramsey but his shot was tame and straight at Rennes goalkeeper Tomas Koubek. One wonders if Arsenal were chasing the game whether he would have been sio c casual.
For when Arsenal were playing catch-up they tore Rennes apart. Just four minutes had gone when a long ball from Ramsey required Koubek to tear out to tackle Lacazette. A minute later, Arsenal were ahead.
Aubameyang started Arsenal’s comeback in brilliant fashion by scoring the opening goal of the game after five minutes
The Gabon striker showed his predatory instinct inside the penalty area with this close-range finish
It was great work by Aaron Ramsey (left) who managed to squeeze in a low cross for his team-mate – despite Rennes pressure
Aubameyang begins to turn away in celebration as Arsenal take the lead and reduce the aggregate scoreline
He was quickly mobbed by his team-mates after getting his side off to the perfect start at the Emirates Stadium
It was a simple goal, simply executed. The fast improving Ainsley Maitland-Niles made ground down the right, slipping the ball inside to Ramsey. His cross was whipped across the face of goal and Aubameyang converted it with an outstretched leg from close range. It was his 31st goal in 53 appearances. One hopes even those whose protests led to Arsene Wenger’s exit last season, acknowledge that the former manager left them with one very good striker.
The next attack brought the aggregate scores level and Arsenal ahead on away goals. It was almost certainly offside but as the game was being officiated by the cream of Latvian arbiters, ruling out a home goal in front of the home spectators, is hardly to be expected. When do you think a referee ever feels the pressure of 60,000 home fans in Latvia?
Aubameyang cut the ball back to Ramsey, who then played it through to Sead Kolasinac, clearly in an offside position. The Bosnian defender, wisely did not challenge for it, raising both arms to acknowledge he had no intention of interfering with play. Rennes, however, stopped – but Aubameyang did not. He ran for the pass, and was now in yards of space. There was a reason for that. He was offside when the ball was played, too. No doubt the officials were so busy watching Kolasinac they had not noticed the second Arsenal man in play. Aubameyang crossed and Maitland-Niles met his delivery with a header at the far post. Might Koubek or a covering defender have done more to block? Certainly – but they were sluggish responding to the oversight and did not recover in time.
Mesut Ozil (right) makes a sliding challenge to dispossess Clement Grenier during the first half
Arsenal’s night got even better just nine minutes later when Ainsley Maitland-Niles made it 2-0 on the night
The rising star headed home after good work by Aubameyang – who floated a cross towards the far post
Maitland-Niles’ downward header proved too good for the Rennes defence who could only watch it bounce into the net
The 21-year-old rejoiced with joy after netting his first European goal for the club on Thursday night
It was an important goal in the tie as it meant that Arsenal were now in front against their French opposition
The youngster’s mood was in stark contrast to Rennes’ who were now behind on aggregate due to the away goal rule
So, Arsenal level and on top so early, much of the urgency went out of the game. Damien Da Silva needed several minutes treatment after Aubameyang’s boot caught him in the upper torso as they jumped together for a ball – he might have been better off wondering why the Arsenal man was so much higher than him that this should happen – and then there was an exchange of rash tackles. Mexer was booked, perhaps harshly, for a foul on Lacazette; Lacazette was booked, not at all harshly, for absolutely clearing out Rennes captain Benjamin Andre.
Just two minutes into the second-half, however, a reality check. Shkodran Mustafi was cheaply dispossessed by Clement Grenier, who gave the ball to striker M’Baye Niang. He took one touch, then hit a low shot which flew off Petr Cech’s right post. An away goal and Arsenal would be on the brink again.
Or a sending off. After 55 minutes, Lacazette arrived late on Ramy Bensebainl. In the circumstances it was fortunate that the only yellow shown was to Grenier for his furious protests, and not to Lacazette. It would have been his second of the night.