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Rennes is the feeder club turned into a Ligue 1 dark horse

Rennes is the feeder club turned into a Ligue 1 dark horse

PARIS (AP) — Claiming a European spot is difficult when you lose your best players. Yet, Rennes has pulled off that feat in the past five seasons.

Rennes is targeting a Champions League spot when it kicks off its French league campaign on Sunday against Lorient.

“We must be ambitious,” Rennes sporting director Florian Maurice says. “We finished fourth last season, we will try to do better this season.”

Rennes played highly entertaining football last season to earn a Europa League berth, scoring 82 times in 38 league games. Bruno Genesio was manager of the year. Only champion Paris Saint-Germain was more prolific with 90 goals.

But missing out on the rich Champions League by three points left a bittersweet taste in the mouth of French billionaire François Pinault, the majority shareholder of Rennes since 1998.

“It was a beautiful season with some nice moments of football,” Pinault told local daily Ouest-France. “It would have been more beautiful with a second-place finish.”

Pinault has high expectations because the club has improved in the past few years. Rennes won a third French Cup in 2019, but the first trophy under Pinault’s ownership. Then third place in 2020 was the best league finish in the club’s history.

An astute squad building has been the secret behind that success. Rennes’ approach is almost the opposite of PSG's. There is no real star in the team. Basically, Rennes is built around an underrated French core. Defenders Warmed Omari and Adrien Truffert, midfielders Flavien Tait, Baptiste Santamaria and Benjamin Bourigeaud, and forwards Martin Terrier and Gaetan Laborde are all regular starters. Yet, none of them has been capped for France.

Last season, Terrier was third in the league with 21 goals, trailing only PSG striker Kylian Mbappé and Monaco forward Wissam Ben Yedder. Bourigeaud had a career season with 11 goals and 13 assists while Laborde was his consistent self with 15 goals and eight assists.

The few internationals at Rennes are no big names and didn’t cost outrageous fees: Senegal goalkeeper Alfred Gomis, Mali right back Hamari Traore and Croatia midfielder Lovro Majer.

Often compared to a young Luka Modric, Majer was signed from Dinamo Zagreb last summer for a reported fee of 12 million euros. Majer quickly turned out to be a smart investment with six goals and eight assists in the league.

But as a drawback to its top-notch development and scouting, Rennes has inadvertently become a feeder club. Ousmane Dembele, Eduardo Camavinga and teenage prodigy Mathys Tel learned the trade at the Rennes youth academy. They performed so well that they attracted the attention of the big European clubs.

Dembele joined Borussia Dortmund in 2016 for a reported initial fee of 15 million euros. Camavinga was signed by Real Madrid in 2021 for a reported fee of 30 million euros. Rennes couldn’t fend off the efforts of Bayern Munich to lure Tel and had to let him go last week for a reported fee of 20 million euros that could reach 28.5 million euros.

The club has also made profits on players with an aggressive resale strategy. Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy was brought from Reims in 2019 before departing for Chelsea a year later. Likewise, Brazilian winger Raphinha came from Sporting Lisbon in 2019 and agreed to a deal with Leeds the following year. This summer, Morocco defender Nayef Aguerd went to West Ham after two seasons at Rennes.

Confident in its scouting, Rennes has gambled on youngsters with a high ceiling by signing Belgian winger Jeremy Doku from Anderlecht in 2020 and Ghana winger Kamaldeen Sulemana from Danish club Nordsjaelland in 2021. So far, the bet hasn’t paid off as their development was hampered by injuries last season. Doku is the most expensive signing in Rennes’ history with a reported transfer fee of 26 million euros.

Despite Pinault’s ambitions, Rennes has been reasonable in its spending compared to the two French heavyweights, PSG and Marseille. Rennes made a combined net loss of 22.7 million euros from 2018 to 2021, according to the annual reports from the DNCG (National Directorate of Management Control), the financial watchdog of French football. By contrast, PSG and Marseille respectively made a combined net loss of more than 320 million euros and more than 265 million euros from 2018 to 2021.

This summer, Rennes' signings were goalkeeper Steve Mandanda on a free transfer from Marseille, Wales international Joe Rodon on loan from Tottenham, and Belgian defender Arthur Theate from Bologna for a reported fee of 20 million euros.

Rennes sporting director Florian Maurice says he is still working on signing more. If there’s a big offer for a player, the club should have a replacement ready. Traore and Bourigeaud have only a year left on their contracts while Terrier and Majer have been linked to several clubs.

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