When Stade Rennais scraped past a struggling Valenciennes side in their first outing in this year’s Coupe de France, few would have seen them walking out on May 3rd in their third cup final in five seasons. Their league form was anything other than encouraging, and there were even question-marks over new boss Philippe Montanier’s ability to transform the fortunes of the Breton side from mid-table also-rans into the competitive side who – with the exception of the previous season - had regularly been there or thereabouts when it came to the European places shakedown in the past seven years.
After edging through in far-from-convincing manner against lower-league opposition (Boulogne and Auxerre), Rennes finally found some morale, beating 3rd placed Lille in the quarter finals at the Stade de la Route de Lorient 2-0 to book a third cup semi-final in as many seasons. The potential banana-skin of an in-form SCO Angers, who are chasing promotion to Ligue 1, was avoided, albeit Angers gave their hosts an early shock, and a nervous finish.
Qualifying for the Final of the Coupe de France sent the Rennes fans into rapture, a chance to regain the holy grail of a French Cup title for the first time since 1971, their last title of any description. The pitch invasion at the end of the 3-2 win echoed the celebrations after their League Cup semi-final win against Montpellier twelve months previously. 24 hours later, their opponents would be decided. Footballing “royalty” Monaco travelled to Breton neighbours Guingamp. Rennes fans were torn between wanting a Rennes-Monaco final, for the main reason that if they had faced Monaco, win or lose, they would have had a guaranteed place in the Europa League next season; a totally unexpected bonus, in an otherwise disappointing season for the “Rouges-et-Noirs”. The flipside of that was the prospect of a rematch against En Avant Guingamp, their arch-nemesis from the 2009 Cup Final. Guingamp, then in the French 2nd Division, upset the odds against an off-colour Rennes team to come from behind and take the cup with a 2-1 in front of a record attendance at the Stade de France. For some, a match which gave Rennes to chance to avenge their defeat five years ago (not to mention their two league defeats this season) against their local rivals; for others, the dread of playing against a team who has a mental toughness and team spirit, and the psychological advantage of having won the last four competitive matches between the sides, including the previous Cup Final meeting.
Guingamp have struggled tremendously in the previous few months, and faced a Monaco side who were hot favourites, but the Bretons didn’t read the script, and were worthy 3-1 winners after an energy-sapping 30 minutes of extra-time.
The media wasted no time in bringing the hype of an All-Brittany final, and the obligatory comparisons with 2009. Neither Guingamp nor Rennes are out of the relegation picture. Guingamp were relegated to the 3rd Division (National) after winning the cup against Rennes.
For Rennes, it represents the opportunity to finally bury the reputation of eternal bridesmaids, and lay to rest the Guingamp hoodoo in recent years. They go into the game with just one defeat in eight in all competitions (a narrow 0-1 reverse against Monaco two weeks ago), and even if they have not exactly been setting the world alight, they have managed to grind out results. They are handicapped, however, by the absence through injury of first-choice left-back, Cheik M’Bengue. With backup solution Emerson freed from his contract to return to Brazil for personal reasons, Rennes were left without their left-sided full-back and any form of specialist cover in a key defensive position. Montanier has a square pegs in round holes dilemma to find an alternative solution, a situation worsened by the continuing absence of emblematic Breton captain, Romain Danzé, who is a major injury doubt, and also in danger of missing out of leading his team out at the Stade France.
Guingamp, for their part, finally got a league win this weekend after an appalling run of results in the league (and a crucial one at that, against relegation rivals Valenciennes). Their playing style poses a notable threat to Rennes, with a powerful, athletic and direct style, and prolific striker Mustapha Yatabaré has been talismanic in their side’s meetings this season.
One thing is for certain. There will be a Breton winner of the Coupe de France, and Paris will be transformed into a corner of Brittany with the Breton “Gwenn Ha Du” flags fluttering all around the Stade de France. Can Rennes finally put a smile on the faces of their long-suffering fans? For a team who has a Jekyll and Hyde reputation, everything will depend on their attitude and commitment on the day. Anything less than 100% will most likely consign Rennes to another disappointment, but with Rennes, the Forrest Gump analogy of unpredictability seems to be a perfect fit. Like a box of chocolates, you never know which Rennes you’re going to get…