Arsenal became the latest English side to complete a second-leg comeback against French opposition when striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s brace helped earn Thursday’s critical 3-0 triumph against Rennes in the Europa League’s round of 16.
The Gunners trailed 3-1 from last week’s harrowing opener at Roazhon Park. But buoyed by the weekend win against Manchester United, who recently overturned a 2-0 deficit against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, they managed to see off middling Ligue 1 challengers.
A first of two tap-ins from Aubameyang and right-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles header from his cross handed the Gunners the advantage on away goals by 15 minutes at Emirates Stadium. The hosts flagged after the break, but another close-range effort from the aforementioned Gabon hit man eased some of the tension past the hour mark and made it 4-3 on aggregate.
Here are the Arsenal player ratings:
Petr Cech 6: Saved by his post when M’Baye Niang took aim early in second half. Then saved twice, correctly, by offside flag in final throes against his former club.
Shkodran Mustafi 6: No sloppy errors or moments of madness to report from the error-prone ex-Germany defender.
Laurent Koscielny 6: Very little defending for the ex-France veteran to undertake until the frantic end. Just about held firm.
Nacho Monreal 6: No litany of errors like in Rennes, but was tested by speedsters on opposition’s right side in second half.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles 7: England really do have some talent on the right side of defence. Calm ball led to Aubameyang opener, then headed in like a seasoned striker. Also led way with five tackles.
Aaron Ramsey 6: Smart low cross for Aubameyang and set fast, early tempo. But this momentum was impinged by a knock as Rennes went on ascendancy after interval.
Granit Xhaka 6: Early confidence flowed from goal in victory against Manchester United. Like most team-mates though, influence diminished after break. Could be tired after fourth start in a row this month.
Sead Kolasinac 7: Struggled to get involved in first half. In reverse to colleagues, came alive after break. Produced one critical covering tackle on Ismaila Sarr and then expertly crossed for Aubameyang’s welcome second.
Mesut Ozil 5: On third-successive start, produced leading, at time, two key passes before removal. It is, however, one goal and one assist in last 12 matches – both in rout of Bournemouth. Wretched value for money.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 8: Home comforts for Gabon forward. Tapped in twice, wound clock back to cross for Maitland-Niles. Now been involved in 15 goals in last 13 Emirates run-outs. Then, inexplicably, scuffed two quick-fire chances late on to record hat-trick.
Alexandre Lacazette 5: Only start because of an appeal, yet seemed on a mission to pick up fresh suspension. Lucky not to see second caution. Hooked.
2 - Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored six braces in all competitions this season (2+ goals); more than any other Premier League player in the 2018-19 campaign. Orthodontist. pic.twitter.com/aIJfUIKCAv— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 14, 2019
Alex Iwobi 5: Dragged glorious chance wide from in front of goal soon after coming on. Aubameyang’s second narrowed risk of this miss hurting Gunners. Lucky not to be punished for kicking out at Hamari Traore.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan 6: More direct than incidental Ozil. Will hope to soon be back in XI.
Lucas Torreira N/A: Helped to keep Rennes out at death.
They’re examples of bravery. With promising young careers ahead of them, they hurled themselves out of the comfortable nests they’d been reared in to try their luck in the big, wide world.
While so many aspiring footballers desperately cling to a dream of making it at Manchester United or Liverpool, they removed themselves from their comfort zones and sought glory elsewhere.
For 18-year-old Sancho, his route is very peculiar, yet one which is becoming increasingly more common among budding British talents. The London-born teenager is a product of Watford’s youth academy yet has gained more stardom for the fact he left Premier League behemoths Manchester City in the summer of 2017 to sign for Borussia Dortmund in Germany.
And he hasn’t looked back. Though in the early throes of his career, he is lighting up the Bundesliga – eight goals and a joint league-leading 10 assists in 23 appearances so far this season.
It perhaps never exploded in such fashion for Welbeck. Despite still being only 28 and a big part of Arsene Wenger’s – and now Unai Emery – Arsenal squad, his has taken a sideways, perhaps even a backwards, step since leaving United five years ago.
In 142 appearances during six fledgling seasons at his boyhood club he scored 29 goals and won five trophies. In 126 outings for the Gunners in the ensuing five campaigns, he has netted 32 goals, and lifted two pieces of silverware.
Still, all of this, plus 16 goals in 42 England caps, hardly constitutes failure. Welbeck’s career has and continues to be blighted by injury.
He is recuperating from the latest one – a serious ankle injury sustained in November – when he patiently waits to speak to assembled media one by one in the confines of The Sevens Stadium on the outskirts of Dubai, where the Gunners’ UAE-based Arsenal Soccer Schools flourishes.
Lazily label him wasted talent. He has been part of Three Lions squads at the two previous World Cups, as well as at Euro 2012, with only a knee injury seeing him miss out on Euro 2016.
And being part of the young revolution being orchestrated by Gareth Southgate is something Welbeck was – in Russia last summer as they reached the World Cup semi-finals – and is, excited by. The tone has been set for the future.
“It was great to be a part of that in the summer,” said Welbeck.
“Getting that far in the competition, we wanted to get further. But I think the camaraderie in the group was great. With the young players coming in and being integrated into the side, that’s what the manager did really well.
“It was a good time and it is a good time for English football now. We want to push on and keep on improving – the standard has been set in the summer.”
He and Sancho have certainly set their own standard. Whether or not it is catching fire like Sancho is doing right now, or existing at the elite level but still somewhat out in the cold like Welbeck seems to be, both players took a chance and can have no regrets.
It’s not always an easy decision to make, to strike out on your own. In fact, it’s a tremendously difficult thing, to admit you’re not going to make it – or at least get the chance – at a big club. Cutting the cord willingly happens so rarely.
Think of some of the names in recent years predicted to be the ‘next big thing’ in English football, yet who never quite cut it. Lee Sharpe, Josh McEachran, Jack Rodwell, Tom Huddlestone, Kieron Dyer, David Bentley, John Bostock, Scott Sinclair, Tom Ince.
All of them promised much coming through the youth ranks of United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton et el, or earning big money moves to the same clubs. Yet even though most of them carved out credible careers, they never hit the heights once promised.
While Welbeck is closing in on a half century of England caps, Sancho is taking baby steps. He earned his first three towards the tail end of 2018 – making his bow on the international stage in the UEFA Nations League fixture against Croatia in October.
He is doing well and was named by Southgate in his 25-man squad for the upcoming, opening Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Montenegro.
Southgate’s exciting new project – focusing on youth – continues with the inclusion of Sancho, as well as recently converted Republic of Ireland youth international Declan Rice, Trent Alexander-Arnold (both 20) and Ben Chilwell (22).
And even though it is not exactly the same path he took, Welbeck is proud of Sancho for taking a risk.
“I think he’s started incredibly well,” Welbeck said of one of England’s, and indeed football’s, brightest young stars.
“He left City at a young age and went to a different country. He’s made some great strides out there and been called up to the national team.
“He’s become a pivotal figure for Dortmund and is doing incredibly well. That’s good for English football and what the English people want to see.
“He’s taken a different route to what a lot of other players have done, so it shows there’s another way to do it. Everyone’s incredibly proud of him but we want him to push on and keep pushing himself to be the best he can be, because he’s a great talent.”
Another young man in Southgate’s squad, yet someone with a much larger profile already, is Marcus Rashford. Although still only 21 he is fully established at club level with United, where he has already surpassed Welbeck’s 142 appearances, with 160 games under his belt despite playing barely three seasons. With 31 he is only 11 England caps shy of Welbeck.
Longsight-born Welbeck is well aware of Wythenshawe native Rashford from their time together at United, with Welbeck revealing he was told about his fellow forward’s burgeoning talent by his older brother Chris, who is friends with Rashford’s older sibling, Dwaine.
Rashford’s rise owes a lot to the Welbeck family in general – Chris is a director at Markfield Sports Management and helped negotiate Rashford’s new contract when he burst onto the scene in that glowing 2015/16 campaign.
Welbeck added: “I knew of Marcus from a young age, when I was at United. His big brother and my big brother are friends so we had a sort of connection there and I knew him and the talent he possessed.
“My brother was always telling me about him and I met him when he was a young boy. He’s gone on and in the last few months under the new manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he’s really got those opportunities playing in that central position and he’s been doing really well.
“I hope it continues and he gets even better.”
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Gameweek 31 is a tricky one in Fantasy Premier League. Not only is it followed by an international break but the fact that only half the league will be in action serves up plenty of challenges.
Hopefully, you’ve planned for this blank Gameweek but even if you haven’t the Free Hit chip is certainly worth using now if still in your possession. Failing that, it’s worth conceding a four-point hit to make an extra transfer and attempt to field at least eight or nine players. An eight-point hit may be worthwhile as well but make sure you then bring in assets who will be in action during blank GW33 as well.
Chelsea and Liverpool are the only top-six sides in action this weekend travelling to Everton and Fulham respectively.
Here are a few tips ahead of GW31.
CAPTAIN – MOHAMED SALAH | LIVERPOOL | 13.4M
Sergio Aguero was the captain pick for GW30 but unless you’ve been living under a rock, Raheem Sterling was the one who shone with a hat-trick against Watford at the Etihad. The Argentine did at least pick up an assist though but is of course not in action for GW31.
Instead, Mohamed Salah gets the nod despite his poor returns of late. The Egyptian did end his run of three GWs without attacking returns having bagged an assist at home to Burnley. Hopefully, that opens the floodgates because his underlying stats suggest he’s due for a big haul.
The Reds face relegation favourites Fulham away from home and Salah will be relishing the prospect of picking apart their defence. The Cottagers have conceded two or more goals in each of their last 10 league matches. They’ve also been on the receiving end of 65 shots in their last four home games – the most in the league by some distance.
So why Salah instead of the in-form Sadio Mane then? Well, while the duo are neck and neck in terms of threat when playing at Anfield, Salah is miles ahead of the Senegalese on the road.
He’s had 18 shots in his last four home matches to Mane’s 15 but in Liverpool’s last four away fixtures, he’s registered 10 shots to just three.
EDEN HAZARD (13.4m) is often a frustrating FPL asset as well but with 16 points over the last two GWs, he may be entering another prolific spell. Everton have conceded 49 shots in their last four games at home, second only to Fulham. With 12 shots in his last four away fixtures, Hazard will hope to transfer that potential into goals.
SADIO MANE (9.9m) has looked sharp in recent weeks and there’s certainly an argument to be made for captaining him over Salah. For one, he’s 3.5m cheaper but more importantly, he’s definitely been more clinical. He’s scored eight times in the last eight GWs, blanking only twice over that period.
JAMIE VARDY (9.0m) is one of the players threatening to go on an excellent run of form. The striker has already scored four times in the last three GWs and perhaps should’ve had even more. He picked up 16 points last time out against Fulham, scoring a brace and picking up an assist. The Foxes travel to Burnley this weekend who haven’t kept a cleansheet since GW23.
TWO TO WATCH
CALLUM WILSON | BOURNEMOUTH | 6.4M
He’s back and he’s picked up from where he left off. Callum Wilson made his return from injury in Bournemouth’s 2-0 win at Huddersfield and came away with a goal and assist. The Cherries only have one fixture against top six opposition left this season – at home to Spurs in the penultimate round. Joshua King may keep his place alongside Wilson but it’s the latter who’s just a magnet for big chances and therefore a greater threat.
JAMES MADDISON | LEICESTER CITY | 6.7M
Like Vardy, James Maddison has the look of a player coming back into form. In his debut Premier League campaign, the 22-year-old has created more chances than anyone else across the division and has picked up two assists in his last three outings.
TWO TO AVOID
FELIPE ANDERSON | WEST HAM | 7.2M
West Ham have had a good run of fixtures and that is what’s prompted several FPL managers to keep faith with Felipe Anderson. It’s become abundantly clear now though that he is not worth his 7.2m price tag. The Brazilian – after a fine first half of the season – has disappointed lately. He’s only delivered once in 11 GWs.
MARCOS ALONSO | CHELSEA | 6.4M
Still owned by around 27 per cent, Marcos Alonso is certainly one to drop – Maurizio Sarri has anyway. The Spaniard hasn’t been named in the matchday squad for Chelsea’s last two league games, only turning up for their Europa League fixture against Dynamo Kyiv. His replacement Emerson Palmieri is available at an attractive price of 5.2m but the Blues’ defence as a unit haven’t been convincing of late, picking up only two cleansheets in their last eight.