“Joyeux Anniversaire à moi,” read the caption as Hatem Ben Arfa posed, thumbs up and grinning. A small cake with a single candle sat in front of him, but celebrating he was not. The 31-year-old’s birthday had passed a month previously, instead his Instagram post back in April was born of sarcasm. “One year without a game calls for a party,” he joked. Exiled at PSG, it had been a full year since Ben Arfa scored twice in a Parisian Coupe de France win over Avranches, then his most recent senior match; his career seemingly petering out. However, as this week has shown, the unpredictable Frenchman isn’t finished just yet.
Football faded from view this weekend in France as bubbling civil unrest instigated by the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movement forced six of ten Ligue 1 games to be postponed as police, their resources stretched, were unable to guarantee safety at many grounds. Some, including managers of those teams left to continue as normal, questioned the decision to play at all. However, Rennes’ former Newcastle United and Hull City forward Hatem Ben Arfa showed no sign of relinquishing a newfound verve.
Until now, Rennes’ season had not gone as planned. Fifth place in a promising first campaign under Sabri Lamouchi had been a welcome surprise, the former French international proving an unlikely hit in his first European club appointment. A disappointing World Cup with Ivory Coast and three years at Qatari club El Jaish amounted to his entre managerial resumé to that point. Nevertheless, Lamouchi had squeezed a productive campaign from Tunisian Wahbi Khazri in an unfamiliar striker role while ably nurturing younger talents in rangy winger Ismaila Sarr and Benjamin Bourigeaud, a technically gifted midfielder signed from Lens.
With European football on the horizon, the club’s summer transfer business appeared to be astute. Despite losing Khazri and imposing centre back Joris Gnagnon to Sevilla, fit again Lyon creator Clément Grenier, Caen defensive stalwart Damien da Silva and youthful Ligue 2 pair Romain del Castillo (Nimes) and Jordy Siebatcheu (Reims) made for exciting additions. Leading the pack of new recruits was Ben Arfa. A career defining season with Nice in 2015/16, as Les Aiglons finished fourth under Claude Puel, had earned him a move to Paris but a skeptical coach in Unai Emery (who deployed him as a lone forward) and a clash of personalities with those higher up led to exile and the subsequent birthday cake social media post. Nevertheless, much was still expected from a move to Rennes.
Clearly lacking match fitness, having only signed as the window shut, Ben Arfa’s return was a slow one and Rennes fans had to wait until mid-October for any impact – a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win at Monaco. Still unfit however, a consistent run in the side was not forthcoming as Lamouchi’s team also struggled to find rhythm with just four wins from their first 15 league games, while a first Europa League campaign in seven years found itself in jeopardy after three losses in four. A disastrous 4-1 home defeat to Strasbourg last Sunday saw Lamouchi sacked, despite a crucial Europa League win at Jablonec a few days earlier.
It was a decision that seemed, and may yet prove to be, rash. Rennes’ recent ambitions have often far outstripped results as the club, having lost patience with Philippe Montanier in 2016 after 30 months in charge, jumped from one manager to the next, their return to the top 6 forever a medium-term goal. Having finally made some progress, Lamouchi became a victim of his own success. Although performances have fluctuated, Rennes’ main issue has been a young and inexperienced squad struggling (as many have) to deal with the draining Europa League schedule. Nevertheless, causes on both fronts were far from lost for Lamouchi, although a reported training ground altercation between Ben Arfa and Bourigeaud might signpost unease.
With Lamouchi gone, it seemed as though Rennes would be plunged back into transition, but Ben Arfa and interim coach Julien Stephan have had other ideas. Just 38, Stephan, son of Didier Deschamps’ bald national team assistant, Guy, finally unleashed Ben Arfa this week to devastating effect. “We must give him freedom and not lock him up in instructions,” insisted Stephan, “When he has this freedom, he enjoys himself and he can express himself freely. This pleasure makes him decisive.” Decisive is right. HBA’s characteristic burst of pace and arrowed 25-yard shot gloriously opened the scoring to beat boyhood club Lyon on Wednesday before another typically skillful and elusive Ben Arfa display, creating the first and scoring the second, saw off Dijon this Saturday.
As a result, Stephan incredibly became the first Rennes coach to win his first two top flight games since 1932 as his new side eased into Ligue 1’s top half. Having been given until the New Year to impress, a win over Astana in the Europa League this Thursday and the continued excellence of a rejuvenated Ben Arfa might leave the Rennes’ hierarchy with little option than to offer him a permanent deal. Either way, now returned from the footballing wilderness, Hatem Ben Arfa will be hoping that a return to Europe will be the reason he ’calls for a party’ this time next year. Rennes, meanwhile, may have stumbled across the formula they have long been searching for.
1 | VAR giveth, and VAR taketh away. Strasbourg were gutted to have conceded a late equaliser against Caen, a match that the eastern side should have, on form, been walking, but they were denied an opportunity for a winner from the spot at the death after Olivier Thual used technology to reverse what seemed a stonewall penalty. Sunday’s early match also prominently featured a penalty decision, as Fode Ballo-Touré was brought down late in stoppage time, allowing Nicolas Pepé to equalise from the spot and preserve Lille’s unbeaten run at home. VAR was not called upon in the later instance, and Reims were frustrated, as the Lille left-back seemed to have gone down a bit too easily, showing that the system will continue to have growing pains. Yet for the moment and generally-speaking, its use in Ligue 1 seems both considered and necessary.
2 | That Reims led at that late juncture was down to a superb goal from Remi Oudin. The Champagne club have garnered plaudits aplenty for their defensive solidity (a necessary change after the departures of Diego Rigonato and Jordan Siebatcheu), but the young winger offered a potent reminder of their predatory ability with an incisive finish. A prolific scorer with the reserves, Oudin has had to make do with playing in a wide role in the first team, with Siebatcheu and now Pablo Chavarria playing centrally, but that doesn’t mean he is not one to watch for David Guion’s side.
3 | Elsewhere this weekend, Strasbourg’s Lebo Mothiba was on target again, bringing his total to eight league goals for the year. Still just 22, the former Lille man was an influential presence as a target man for Les Dogues in last season’s run-in, and has continued his good form with his move east, becoming an ideal outlet for the whipped crosses of wing-backs Kenny Lala and Lionel Carole. Europe still looks a tall order for Thierry Laurey’s side, but with Strasbourg having lost just once in the matches Mothiba has started, he has been a needed focal point, and a snip at just €4m.
4 | Brazilian attacking midfielder Ganso was absent from Amiens’ 2-1 victory over Guingamp on Saturday night, the club citing sickness as the cause. However, it is understood that the 29-year-old has catastrophically fallen out with Amiens boss Christophe Pélissier in what appears to be another failed move for Neymar’s best friend. Reports in France indicated that the fissure of the relationship between player and coach is so irreparable that Ganso has already cleared his belongings from his locker in the training centre and demanded that his agent cancel the loan deal. Amiens are refusing to terminate the agreement for the moment, despite Ganso having struggled to adapt to the physicality of Ligue 1 in his opening months in French football.
Results: Guingamp 1-2 Amiens, Rennes 2-0 Dijon, Strasbourg 2-2 Caen, Lille 1-1 Reims.