Stade Rennais are the team to watch in France
Background image: S Plaine, CC BY-SA 4.0
When Stade Rennes won the Coupe de France last season, mild shockwaves rippled around French football. Rennes are a middling club, the French equivalent of Wolves or Granada. While they are twice Ligue 2 champions, the Brittany-based club never conquered the top flight. The cup win was an impressive achievement, their first since 1971, but still only a cup win. Defeating Paris Saint-Germain over 90 minutes isn't the same as over 38 matches.
Even so, Rennais are building on their success. In fourth place, Julien Stephan's side is on track for a club-record finish. Again, Les Rouges et Noir won't catch Les Rouge et Bleu but they've a decent chance to be runners-up. Challenging PSG is normally the preserve of the bigger outfits like Monaco, Lyon and Marseille. Lille enjoy a reputation for punching above their weight now and then but the fact Rennes are making a decent fist of it speaks to the level of development they are currently experiencing.
Julien Stephan is ambitious. The club’s former reserve team manager, he took charge just over a year ago, making an immediate impact. His 4-2-3-1 produced a string of victories domestically and in Europe.
Known for their strong academy system and focus on development, appointing a coach who worked his way through the system was an astute choice. While the squad is largely French, even the foreign talent is young and eager. The 23-year-old Brazilian, Raphinha excels on the wing, knocking in three goals and two assists in 16 appearances. Backing him is Malian Hamari Traore, 27, who shows his class at right-back with three assists in 21 games.
There remains a ways to go. This season’s European campaign went awry in the group stage. In a tough group with Lazio, Celtic and CFR Cluj, Rennes lost four of their six matches. To be fair, Stephan rotated in the competition. Qualifying from the group would have been nice, but Stade Rennais fans adhere to the ancient platitude, focus on the league.
In Ligue 1, Stephan’s men began with a three-match winning run, including a 2-1 victory over PSG. After slipping in September and October, they’ve returned to form, winning six of their last seven. It's been a grind, though. All but one of those wins came via a one-goal margin. Some may turn their nose at that but resilience is important. It’s all well and good running riot against poorer opposition but producing results against sides that match or exceed one's quality demonstrates character.
Whatever happens this season, the biggest challenge remains future campaigns. Rennes have won the cup and are riding high on the wave of success but if they are to push on as a club they need to transform the confidence, publicity and revenue into something more tangible and longlasting. They have what it takes to make a realistic challenge for the title in the coming years. It remains to be seen whether they can establish themselves as one of Ligue 1's big guns.