Fresh from reaching the final of the Coupe de la Ligue last week and their 2-0 win at Bastia in the league on Sunday, Rennes are approaching this weekend’s home meeting with Olympique Marseille, who lie two places above them in the table in third, with a mixture of excitement and caution. And for one Rennes player in particular, the match will be very special, whatever the outcome.
Midfielder Romain Alessandrini was born in Marseille 23 years ago and spent most of his formative years in the l’OM youth set-up, adding a little extra spice to the encounter against his old club.
Alessandrini burst on to the scene a few short months ago, and has impressed everyone in what is his first season in the French top-flight. Having appeared in Rennes’ 3-1 defeat to Marseille last September, he will not be lacking in motivation for Saturday’s big game, as he explained in an interview with FIFA.com.
“Personally I’m looking to put in a better performance than I did in the match last year, which was one of the first games I started,” he said. “Even so, it was very exciting for me to run out on the pitch at the Velodrome, where I used to go every week when I was a boy.”
The player’s return to his roots was made even more special by the fact he had come a long way to get there, having begun his professional career back in 2008 with Gueugnon in the Championnat de France National (the country’s third tier, more commonly known as Le National).
That second year in Ligue 2 did me an awful lot of good and I think that’s been a big reason why I’ve been playing with such freedom this year.
Sidelined for nearly a year after a subsequent injury, he then moved up to Ligue 2 with Clermont Foot. It was during his two-year stay there that Alessandrini began to make an impact, appearing twice in the league’s team of the season: “That gave me a lot of confidence. It's always nice to get recognition from everyone for your work and I was very proud to be named in the team.”
That recognition was the springboard to Ligue 1 and a move to Rennes last summer, with Alessandrini wasting little time in breaking into the starting XI.
“I really wanted to show what I could do on the pitch,” he explained. “After my first year at Clermont I had the chance to play in Ligue 1. I don’t think I would have done as well if I’d made the move earlier, though. That second year in Ligue 2 did me an awful lot of good and I think that’s been a big reason why I’ve been playing with such freedom this year.”
Form and fitness
A mercurial, inventive player, the left-footed Alessandrini is Rennes’ joint top-scorer this season with Julien Feret on eight goals, a haul that has included three particularly exceptional strikes: a spectacular long-range volley against Lille, another fierce volley from a tight angle against Nancy, and a crisp first-time drive against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes last November, a goal that set the men from Brittany on the road to a famous victory.
While the player has had to adapt his game to meet the demands of the top flight, all under the watchful eye of his coach Frederic Antonetti, he has managed to retain and nurture the impish, unpredictable side to his game.
I never ease off, and that’s made me the player I am. If I didn’t have that, then I’d just be an average player.
“I’ve always been a spontaneous kind of player,” he explained. “The coach has taught me a lot about positioning and I feel as if that area of my game is improving all the time. I do try, though, to use the skills I’ve got and do the things I know I can do in the final third. Sometimes they come off. Sometimes they don’t. But right now it’s going well (laughs).”
So well, in fact, that his strike rate has actually gone up since he began his Ligue 1 career, something he puts down to the creativity of his partners in the Rennes front line: “When you play with Julien Fere, Mevlut Erding and Jonathan Pitroipa, there’s bound to be a lot of chances coming your way.”
The new boy reciprocates that five-star service by expending a lot of energy and giving his all for the team. Discussing his work rate, he said: “Pressing the whole time, covering every blade of grass and giving 200 percent is just part of my game, even in training. I never ease off, and that’s made me the player I am. If I didn’t have that, then I’d just be an average player. I need to show that freshness to bring something to the team.”
Alessandrini’s selflessness and inspiration up front, not to mention his sudden breakthrough, are all reminiscent of two other French forwards: Franck Ribery and Mathieu Valbuena.
The comparison is not lost on the Rennes man: “I follow both of them closely, because they both started playing in Le National, like me. I’ve watched what they were doing when they were my age and I try to draw inspiration from them because they’re great players. They’ve proved that anything can happen in football and their example is what pushes me to give my all and make sure I don’t have any regrets.”