Weblog: The football punter

Unai Emery's Gunners can pass French test

Last-16 first leg
TV: BT Sport 3, 5.55pm Thursday

Arsenal have had the benefit of some kind draws in the Europa League and look solid favourites to secure a round-of-16 first-leg victory over Rennes in Brittany.

The Gunners have kept themselves in the hunt for a top-four finish in the Premier League by taking ten points from the last four matches but are still looking at the Europa League as a handy insurance policy in their quest to secure Champions League football next season.

Unai Emery won the competition with Sevilla in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and is keen to get his hands on the trophy for a fourth time.

Emery's team selections for Europa League nights have left nothing to chance and he looks sure to name another strong side against Rennes with the aim of making next Thursday's second leg as comfortable as possible.

Rennes need a first-leg victory to have a realistic chance of going through but may lack the offensive quality to unsettle an Arsenal side who defended so resolutely for the majority of their 1-1 draw against Tottenham on Saturday.

The Red and Blacks are tenth in France, having scored a modest 35 goals in 26 games, although they seem to enjoy Europa League nights and put in a superb performance to triumph 3-1 away to Real Betis in the round-of-32 second leg, completing a stunning 6-4 aggregate success.

However, they will be without two of their better attackers against the Gunners as Jordan Siebatcheu is sidelined with a thigh injury and Mbaye Niang serves a one-game ban.

Arsenal's defenders will need to keep an eye on ex-Newcastle forward Hatem Ben Arfa and pacy wide man Ismaila Sarr, who are Rennes joint-top league goalscorers this season with five each.

But there is nothing frightening about the Rennes attack and the home side are weakened defensively by a suspension for regular right back Hamari Traore.

Traore's understudy Mehdi Zeffane has not featured since he was injured in the early stages of a 1-1 draw at home to Marseille 11 days ago and there are no other natural right-backs waiting to slot into the position.

Facing Arsenal with an under-strength side is far from ideal and makes it difficult to replicate the heroics of the victory over Betis.

The Gunners will have taken note of that result and are likely to be more focused than they were when losing 1-0 away to Bate Borisov last month.

There was nowhere near enough tempo to Arsenal's play in their first tussle with Bate but they looked a focused, dangerous side against Spurs at the weekend and more of the same should ensure they take a giant step towards the Europa League quarter-finals.


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Match in Focus


Kazakhstan v Scotland

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Kazakhstan have conceded 89 goals in their last 40 qualification matches.
Expert verdict
Nearly 21 years have passed since the Tartan Army last followed Scotland to a major international tournament.However, there is a quiet confidence that the Scots can end that barren run. The Kazakhs are ranked 77 places below Scotland and have won only three of their last 40 major tournament qualifiers.