This article also featured on Guardian Sport.
Rennes hadn’t won a trophy since 1971, and it showed. Keeper Tomas Koubek hared wide-eyed down the touchline, Hatem Ben Arfa was in tears, sporting director Olivier Letang booted balls into the crowd, Clement Grenier cramped up chasing Koubek and 30,000 Bretons erupted. In the Parisien downpour the cup of shocks produced one of its most memorable upsets, PSG were embarrassed (again), a talented young manager triumphed and Ben Arfa had his revenge.
Perhaps most incredibly PSG had been two up on a racuois night at the Stade de France. Neymar’s 13th minute corner found a marauding Dani Alves who’s volley (a la Beckham/Scholes) fizzed passed Koubek before Neymar’s cute dink made it two. That seemed to end it but Presnel Kimpembe’s sliced clearance flew past Alphonse Areola at the end of an open first half to give Rennes hope.
During the interval Rennes coach Julian Stephan, whose tactical plan to contain and counter played out perfectly, “sensed that there could be fragility and nervousness from the opposition,” the 38 year old explained afterwards, “we had to press on, believe in ourselves, and above all remain coherent in our game-plan.” He got his wish. Rennes remained a threat while PSG were unable to capitalise on their domination of possession and Rennes centre back Mexer crashed home an unchecked header just after the hour.
Afterwards, Tuchel seemed to blame complacency for his team’s surrender. “We lacked the instinct to go and get the 3rd or 4th goal.” the German explained, “we tried to do things that are harder, but you don’t do that in decisive games that matter. We were not aware that it is always possible to lose your confidence and to lose the match.” With penalties looming Kylian Mbappe, who wasted several clear openings, was dismissed having connected, horribly, with Damian Da Silva’s knee. The incident again underlined the darkening of his mood and the shortening of his temper since joining Paris two years ago. Mbappe isn’t the grinning, joyful teenager from Monaco anymore.
Although surprisingly choosing to kick second, PSG’s experience and, as Tuchel underlined in their huddle, their technical quality still made PSG favourites for the shoot-out. Nevertheless six unerringly composed Rennes penalties later Christopher Nkunku, who has spoken to Rennes about a summer move, needed to score. His high, wayward attempt sparked pandamonium. Koubek ran, Ben Arfa cried and Letang (formerly of PSG) booted. Rennes owner François-Henri Pinault said, “This is a dream. When I was young I was a ball-boy here... I am proud, emotional.”
Tuchel, however, was at a loss. “It’s too early to do a post-mortem,” he said later, “I’ll have to think for several days, we have to be honest with ourselves about what happened. This is not an easy situation – we lost our intensity after the winter break.” Neymar, who seemed to ‘punch’ a Rennes supporter supposedly hurling insults as PSG collected their runners-up medals, criticised his more inexperienced teammates. “They need to listen more than they talk,” he said, “sometimes when a more experienced guy speaks, they answer back. When the coach speaks, they answer back. This is not how the team will go far.”
Stephan, son of Guy - assistant coach with Didier Deschamps’ national team, meanwhile praised his team’s “organisation, courage, self-sacrifice and technical quality.” While Rennes win was a shock, Stephan’s success isn’t. Only appointed in December, Stephan has squeezed the best from his charges and has earned their admiration. Sevilla defender Joris Gnagnon, managed by Stephan alongside Ousmane Dembele in the youth team, told Ouest France that he’s “the father I didn’t have. He educated me as a man and as a footballer. I struggled with authority but when Julien spoke to me, it was different. I managed to channel myself.”
This may be just the start for Rennes. “This title will change the history of the club,” Stephan proclaimed yesterday - and he could be right. Fifth last season, Stephan’s men gave Arsenal a scare in the Europa League and ousted Lille and Lyon (second and third in Ligue 1) to make Saturday’s final. Back in Europe with an inspirational, intelligent young coach leading a dynamic, talented squad, Rennes could be poised to establish themselves as regularly challengers in France. The club will continue to support Stephan too after an eight figure sum was spent on exciting Senegalese forward Ismaila Sarr while proven (and costly) Ligue 1 quality was added in Grenier and Ben Arfa last summer.
Exiled during two seasons at PSG after he publicly criticised the board, few will feel Rennes’ triumph more than Ben Arfa. An awkward handshake with PSG President Nasser Al-Khelaifi as he collected a winners medal represented redemption for the 31 year old. 18 months on from sarcastically posing with a ‘birthday cake’ having not played for an entire year at Paris, Ben Arfa described the win as “The most beautiful title of my career.”
For PSG this type of defeat is becoming almost cliched. To encourage his team Stephan showed “moments, images, where the Parisians showed fragility” and played upon their mentally frailty. Although again tinged by misfortune, this latest collapse stands alongside a host of limp Champions League exits, three games without a league win with the title mathematically at steak and conceding three penalties to exit the Coupe de Ligue at home to bottom side Guingamp as examples of Parisien wilting.
In Rennes meanwhile celebrations were still ongoing last night as thousands gathered on Esplanade Charles de Gaulle as their heroes, ‘give everything’ emblazoned on their chests, presented the Coupe de France. Rennes, against all expectations, had produced another “remontada”, said a victorious Haten Ben Arfa “but”, he explained, “PSG are used to that.”
by Adam White