Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Can Arsenal go all the way in Europa League after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang downed Rennes?
Arsenal fought back from the brink to claim a 4-3 aggregate victory over Rennes and move into the quarter-finals
Last Updated: 15/03/19 9:49am
Arsenal became the sixth Premier League team to reach a European quarter-final this season as they beat Rennes 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium to seal a 4-3 aggregate win in the Europa League. Is there any reason why they can't now go on and win it?
It is only a week since Arsenal slumped to one of the most disappointing defeats of their season. That dismal display at Rennes' Roazhon Park stadium prompted a wave of criticism, but it already feels like a distant memory. In the space of a few days, Arsenal have climbed into the Premier League top four at Manchester United's expense and become only the second side in Europa League history to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit.
They achieved the latest feat in some style, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring his sixth double of the season either side of an Ainsley Maitland-Niles header to bring Arsenal back from the brink and keep their Europa League dream alive. Suddenly, the mood around the club is one of genuine optimism.
A top-four Premier League finish has always been the priority for Emery - just as it was for his predecessor - but this latest victory at the Emirates Stadium - an arena which is fast becoming a fortress - ensures his first season in English football could yet finish with a trophy.
Indeed, Arsenal's starting line-up was a reminder of just how highly Emery values the competition. The Spaniard, a three-time winner with Sevilla, of course, made just two changes to the side that beat United on Sunday, with Petr Cech taking Bernd Leno's place in goal and Shkodran Mustafi replacing the suspended Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
That meant Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey were deployed together for the second consecutive game, and the attacking approach certainly paid off in the early stages. Indeed, Lacazette had already sprung the offside trap once by the time Aubameyang turned in Ramsey's cross in the fifth minute.
Aubameyang was a constant threat to the visitors, causing panic when he latched onto a Maitland-Niles through ball soon after his opener, and it wasn't long before he set up Arsenal's second. The striker looked offside from Ramsey's pass, but he still showed impressive perseverance to reach the byline and dig out a cross for Maitland-Niles to head home.
It seemed Arsenal were going to run away with it at that point, but instead they were required to show different qualities. Rennes grew into the game and came out strongly for the second period, with M'Baye Niang striking the post in the 47th minute as they enjoyed a period of heavy pressure. Arsenal, though, were able to fend them off in determined style.
On the hour mark, Sead Kolasinac could be seen pumping his fist in celebration after making an outstanding recovery tackle on Ismaila Sarr. Soon after that, the excellent Laurent Koscielny was in the right place at the right time to intercept a dangerous Hamari Traore cut-back.
The Europa League quarter-finalists
- Slavia Prague
There were nervous moments for Mustafi, who was less than convincing on his return to the side, but Arsenal held firm before Aubameyang extended their advantage, slotting home from Kolasinac's cross in the 72nd minute before donning a mask in celebration. He should have had a hat-trick in the closing stages, but in the end it did not matter.
And so the Europa League quest continues. Arsenal have now played 10 games in the competition and they will head into the crucial final months of the season knowing they must play another five if they are to go on and win it. It is a potentially gruelling schedule, but Emery will feel confident that Arsenal can handle it.
Firstly, the momentum is with them. The first-leg debacle against Rennes was a blot on proceedings, but there is a growing sense that things have begun to click for Emery in recent weeks. Arsenal have now won five of their last seven fixtures in all competitions, scoring 17 goals and keeping four clean sheets.
Sunday's 2-0 win over Manchester United took them two points clear of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side in fourth place in the Premier League, putting them in the driving seat for a Champions League finish, and the victory over Rennes was evidence of squad depth which should help them in their pursuit of Europa League success.
Indeed, it was a double substitution with 20 minutes remaining which eventually put the game out of Rennes' reach. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who replaced Lacazette and Ozil respectively, made an immediate difference. Iwobi fired narrowly wide within a minute of coming on, and moments after that Mkhitaryan played a key role in Aubameyang's second.
When coupled with the new-found defensive resilience Arsenal have exhibited in recent weeks, their enviable array of attacking talent puts them in a strong position heading into the last eight. None of the other quarter-finalists boast a strike-force to rival Aubameyang and Lacazette. There aren't many who can choose between two players like Ozil and Mkhitaryan, either.
And so, in a season that has previously threatened to fizzle out, Arsenal are suddenly primed for a strong finish. Emery's men are on the up - and a trophy-winning climax is in the cross hairs.
If you're reading on skysports.com comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click 'Report'.