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 goals, and wear the mask, that confirmed their superiority.
Until Aubameyang claimed 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 the costume 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?
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 against Rennes
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
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Arsenal (3-4-1-2): Cech 6.5; Mustafi 6.5, Koscielny 6.5, Monreal 7; Maitland-Niles 8.5, Ramsey 7.5 (Torreira 87min), Xhaka 6.5, Kolasinac 7; Ozil 6.5 (Mkhitaryan 70, 6); Aubameyang 9, Lacazette 6 (Iwobi 70, 6).
Subs not used: Leno, Suarez, Guendouzi, Nketiah.
Booked: Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubamayang, Kolasinac.
Goals: Aubameyang 5 and 72, Maitland-Niles 15.
Manager: Unai Emery 7.
Rennes (4-4-2): Koubek 5.5; Traore 6, Da Silva 6, Mexer 6, Bensebaini 6; Bourigeaud 5.5, Andre 6 (Lea Siliki 79), Grenier 6 (Honou 70, 6), Sarr 5.5; Ben Arfa 6, Niang 5.5.
Subs not used: Badiashile, Zeffane, Doumbia, Del Castillo, Gelin.
Booked: Mexer, Grenier, Bourigeaud, Traore.
Manager: Julien Stephan 5.
Referee: Andris Treimanis (Lat) 5.
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, born in France of Gabonese heritage, certainly represents that. This was his 32nd goal in 53 appearances for Arsenal, and in his last 13 home games, he has been directly involved in 15 goals: scoring 11, with four assists. He was the difference again on Thursday night, getting Arsenal off to the flyer they needed, then picking off Rennes in the second half just when they had started to look dangerous.
Aubameyang clearly has a thing for superheroes – and masks. He was Spider-Man in a celebration at Saint-Etienne and Batman with Borussia Dortmund, but Black Panther looks to be the one that will stick, not least as it is a named shared by the Gabonese national team.
‘I needed a mask that represents me,’ Aubameyang said after. That, of course is not strictly true – Lionel Messi doesn’t appear to have one and he seems to be doing all right – but celebrating with costumery is certainly more fun than acting all moody or running around with a scowl or a finger to the lips telling everyone to shut up. Maybe more players should try it, although it did earn him a humourless booking from referee Andris Treimanis. Bet that never happens to Black Panther, either.
It is a celebration we can expect to see quite a lot of, too, while Aubameyang is in this nick. He is a great poacher of goals, in and around the six-yard box, as well as an able creator. He was in the right place at the right time to convert two tap ins here, and his cross made Arsenal’s second for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. It was a superb display.
One hopes that even those whose protests led to Arsene Wenger’s exit last season, will acknowledge that the former manager left them with one very good striker. That alone is a decent foundation.
Arsenal manager Unai Emery (right) greets his Rennes counterpart Julien Stephan before kick-off
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
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 until late 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 Aubameyang tried to finish with a bicycle kick. A lovely pass from Ozil was then teed up for Aaron Ramsey but produced only a tame shot. One wonders if Arsenal were still chasing the game whether their finishing would have been so casual.
For when Arsenal were playing catch-up they tore Rennes apart. Just four minutes had gone when a long ball from Ramsey required goalkeeper Tomas Koubek to tear out to tackle Alexandre Lacazette. A minute later, Arsenal were ahead.
It was a simple goal, simply executed. The fast improving 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.
The next attack brought the aggregate scores level and sent 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.
Mesut Ozil (right) makes a sliding challenge to dispossess Clement Grenier during the first half
Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny (left) plays a pass under pressure from Rennes striker M’Baye Niang
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
No doubt the officials were so busy watching Kolasinac they had not noticed the second Arsenal man in play. Perhaps he should have worn an eye-catching mask. 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.
So, Arsenal level and on top so early, much of the urgency went out of the game. 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 going out again.
Aubameyang changed that with his straightforward second: a lovely cross by Kolasinac, finished from close range. He should have claimed a hat-trick but missed a third chance six yards out in the 83rd minute. By then, Rennes were about as much a match for Arsenal as Stimpy would have been.
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. In all, there will be six English clubs in Europe’s quarter-final draws on Thursday, the largest number since 1971.
For Arsenal it means the Champions League safety blanket – potential back door qualification as Europa League winners – remains, even if they may not need it given their current position, in fourth. Still, it has revitalised this competition, as Arsenal and Chelsea’s commitment has shown. Michel Platini had to leave us with at least one good idea.
It was an unhappy return to England for former Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa – who now plays for Rennes