News Live Scores
African All Stars

Why Ismaila Sarr can heap further misery on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium

00:33 GMT 14/03/2019
Ismaila Sarr Rennes Arsenal UEFA Europa 07032018
The winger's late strike at Roazhon Park has given Stade Rennais genuine hope of pulling off an unforeseen upset in London

Fine margins often determine who comes out on top in cup competitions, and in two-legged ties, they’re arguably even more significant. When Stade Rennais led Arsenal 2-1 in the first-leg of their Round of 16 Europa League tie, the potential win, whilst somewhat unexpected, didn’t make progression assured.

However, a late Ismaila Sarr header in the final minute of stoppage time sent the hosts 3-1 up, and left them truly believing in their qualification chances. In all fairness, while the unanticipated success doesn’t assure the French side of anything, Sarr’s goal in the closing stages completely changed the complexion of the tie, and alters Unai Emery’s approach to the game at the Emirates Stadium.

The encounter at Roazhon Park was the cliched ‘game of two halves’; in the first 45 minutes, the Gunners edged possession and created chances to add to Alex Iwobi’s fortuitous opener.

In that time, Julien Stephan’s side struggled to create chances, forcing them into taking long-range efforts, and they were lucky to not trail by more as the London side failed to take advantage of good openings.

All the same, Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ red card minutes before the break was the turning point of the meeting, given Rennes grew from there on out while Emery’s side collapsed.

Sarr’s involvement in the Greece international’s dismissal was influential too, in that he was aware of the space in behind the defence and made the run off the ball in an attempt to receive the pass for a potential clear-cut opportunity.

Knowing full well he wasn’t catching the quick Senegal international, Sokratis panicked and made contact with the wideman. It was ill-advised owing to the fact Laurent Koscielny, the covering defender, was set to go toe-to-toe with the wideman.

The home side equalized from the resulting free-kick and never looked back. They out-possessed (57-43) and out-shot (12-6) Arsenal after the break and just deserved to win in France.

For Sarr’s part, the willingness in the game’s closing stages to break his neck and get on the end of James Lea Siliki’s cross was admirable, since it came at a period when legs are usually heavy and players are less focused. He gambled on Nacho Monreal’s lackadaisical attitude to get back in position and was duly rewarded.

It was just reward for the player who’d not let his head drop after unbelievably missing from point-blank range late in the first-half to send his side 2-1 ahead. Rennes’ pair of big chances over the course of the encounter fell to the 21-year-old, and while he missed the first, the latter was headed home with aplomb to take his tally in the competition to four in eight games.

The reverse fixture at the Emirates has been set up nicely, given Emery’s side need to play a perfect game to advance. The Spaniard will need his defenders to concentrate, limit mistakes and prevent Petr Cech in goal from facing a glut of efforts, while asking his midfield to maintain control of the game. He will also demand top-notch finishing from his forwards.

Frankly, Arsenal’s goalscoring potential is the reason they are challenging on two fronts this season. The duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette (who will be available on Thursday night having had his three-game ban reduced) are the major reason the North London outfit are fourth in the Premier League, and they will be confident they have the firepower to overturn the deficit.

They’ve hit the back of the net 17 and 12 times respectively in the league and it’s enough reason for Gooners to have faith in qualification.

Be that as it may, an error-prone rearguard will send shivers down the home supporters’ spine.

A soft underbelly has threatened to derail aspirations in a transitional season which has seen Emery’s side often need to score two or more goals to win games. Clean sheets have been at a premium too, with only six league shut-outs all season.

They always seem easy to get at, and it’s no surprise the pair of Bernd Leno and Cech have had to make 105 saves combined after 30 games.

To contextualize the aforementioned stats, Arsenal are only below Fulham (114), Burnley (114) and West Ham United (117) for the amount of goalkeeper saves, while Manchester City (47), Chelsea (59) and Liverpool’s (62) shot-stoppers haven’t had to make nearly as many.

That’s why Sarr and his teammates will not fret going into the game, and why should they?

Against Manchester United on Sunday, the Gunners won 2-0, but the final score didn’t tell the full story; the Red Devils created no fewer than five big chances, and hit the woodwork twice, as Emery’s side rode their luck on home turf.

Without Sokratis, who ranks as Arsenal’s best and most commanding presence at the back, Sarr and co. will have chances presented to them over the course of the game. If they take those chances, then the next round beckons.

Having wreaked havoc upon a typically fragile defence in the reverse fixture, will lightning strike twice at the Emirates as Rennes seek to inflict more European misery on Emery and his charges? 

Expect Sarr to be key to their chances.