Hatem Ben Arfa will be motivated to take down former club PSG in Coupe de France final
French forward had a brief spell at the Paris giants which ended sourly - now he has the chance for Rennes to inflict some misery on his old employers
Hatem Ben Arfa’s last game for Paris Saint-Germain turned out to be one of his best. It was just over two years ago, and he scored twice in a Coupe de France quarter-final against Avranches.
The first strike was a super, curling effort, following a free-kick, the second a tap-in. He barely smiled after he converted it, and nor did his then manager, Unai Emery.
Emery never used Ben Arfa after that, and a beguiling storyline that was supposed to celebrate the renaissance of one of the most gifted but enigmatic talents of a generation wheezed on towards its anti-climax. The bad marriage between Ben Arfa and PSG is still being argued about, with alleged outstanding payments the subject of litigation.
On Saturday, at the Stade de France, Ben Arfa, 32, should lead the attack for Rennes against PSG in the final of the Coupe de France. It is a trophy PSG have held for the past four years, all but one of those as part of a domestic Double.
The 2017 Cup win was the one not twinned with a Ligue 1 title, and bittersweet for that. From the bench, Ben Arfa watched that final knowing his time with PSG was nearly up.
He had been brought to Paris the previous summer, thanks to a revival at Nice, where he landed up after a nadir that had him leave Newcastle United, get demoted to the reserves at Hull City, and spend six months unemployed.
At Nice, Ben Arfa reminded France that, on his day, with ball glued to his instep, his radar fixed confidently on improbable slaloms, there is no footballer from the nation of the world champions more exciting to watch.
At Rennes, where Ben Arfa has enjoyed another renaissance, spectators see that with happy regularity, and if he acknowledges the PSG juggernaut has moved on since he was unable to pilot it - when he left, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe arrived - he will also know that the brittle character of the lavishly-funded PSG project have not been entirely solved.
If PSG win the Double, the old question will quickly be asked: And so, when will they be ready for the big Treble? Once again, PSG have fallen short of their ambitions in the Uefa Champions League this season, eliminated in the last-16 by Manchester United.
They are not in sparkling form domestically either, the 3-0 win over Monaco at the weekend followed successive defeats in Ligue 1 by Lille, well set to finish second, and by Nantes. Neither meant a crisis, because PSG stood so far ahead of the rest in le championnat that the coronation was merely postponed. But the five goals they shipped at Lille certainly angered manager Thomas Tuchel.
The good news for Tuchel is that his injury-list is shorter than it was when Lille and Nantes struck their blows on behalf of all Ligue 1’s 19 underdogs. Neymar, out since January, returned to action against Monaco. Striker Edinson Cavani also came back from a lay-off, while there is a possibility that Angel Di Maria, troubled by a hamstring for the past month, may play a part in the final.
Mbappe, Neymar, Cavani, Di Maria: the full €450 million (Dh1.85 billion) front quartet. Even if Ben Arfa had hit it off with Emery, his long-term role at this PSG would likely, in that company, to have been as an impact substitute.
As for Rennes’ youthful manager, Julien Stephan, 38, he whimsically looks back to the time when he was an aspiring young footballer, 20 seasons ago, with PSG’s reserves and gasps at how much things have changed.
Stephan never made the top level as a player, but felt closer to doing so at a late-1990s PSG who hovered around mid-table than he would have done at the modern version, six times French champions in the last seven years.
But one day, if Stephan’s coaching career continues as it has started, PSG may think of him again. He was promoted from the Rennes youth section only in December. He has reached a Cup final, and guided Rennes past a strong Real Betis into the last-16 of the Europa League, and a home win over Arsenal.
He has also put faith, more than his predecessor Sabri Lamouchi had, in the mercurial Ben Arfa, who will certainly be motivated on Saturday. “We have shown we can compete with big teams in Europe this season,” Ben Arfa told reporters, “so we have to be positive.”
Updated: April 25, 2019 08:23 AM