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For Rennes coach, Champions League dream is not quite how he imagined it

French side Rennes have qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history under Julien Stephan, but the young coach knows the scale of the challenge awaiting him and his club in such a challenging time
French side Rennes have qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history under Julien Stephan, but the young coach knows the scale of the challenge awaiting him and his club in such a challenging time Damien Meyer AFP/File
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Rennes (France) (AFP)

Long one of the great underachievers in French football, Rennes are now looking forward to the Champions League thanks to the sterling work of young coach Julien Stephan, but the coronavirus crisis could make it harder to compete at Europe's top table.

The club from Brittany are owned by luxury goods mogul Francois Pinault, one of France's richest men, yet they had never qualified for the Champions League before.

Stephan has changed that, leading Rennes to third in Ligue 1 before the season was suspended in mid-March with 10 games remaining because of the pandemic.

Last week's decision by the French league to declare the season over was therefore good news for Rennes, given only the top three in Ligue 1 qualify for the Champions League.

"In the context it seems like the wisest decision. And in our case we still played three-quarters of the season and I think we deserved to be third," Stephan said in an interview with AFP.

Rennes had never before finished in the top three and Stephan, 39, admits his team "overperformed".

It is still unclear how and when this season will finish in the rest of Europe, never mind when next season will start. When it does, Rennes will need to come through two qualifying rounds to join fellow French sides Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille in the Champions League group stage.

"We are not there yet, but if we are fortunate enough to make it we know full well that it is another dimension. The level is extremely high and you need experience and maturity to handle it. It is another world," Stephan said.

- Economic crisis -

Nevertheless, Rennes have shown under Stephan that they can compete with some of Europe's biggest sides.

He was appointed in late 2018 and last season took the team to the Europa League last 16, beating Arsenal 3-1 at Roazhon Park before losing the return in London.

Rennes then stunned PSG on penalties in the French Cup final to win their first silverware in almost 50 years, and now they have Champions League football on the horizon.

However, before they get that far, they may need to ward off the predators circling around their brilliant 17-year-old midfielder Eduardo Camavinga. He has been heavily linked with Real Madrid.

The situation is further complicated by the economic crisis affecting football because of the virus-induced suspension -- the French league is asking for a 225 million-euro ($246m) government-guaranteed loan to help clubs compensate for lost television income.

"We will need to see what the consequences are for the club," admitted Stephan, whose father Guy is assistant to France coach Didier Deschamps.

"At the moment we are having to build with a Europa League budget rather than a Champions League budget.

"The difficult thing will be strengthening the squad while also living within our means. The objective really is to try to keep the core of the team together."

In the meantime, Stephan is waiting to see when games can resume, and when fans will be allowed back into stadiums.

"We are going through a difficult period which will have considerable economic and social consequences," he said.

"Our job normally is to provide a spectacle, give people pleasure and put a smile on their faces. I think that is going to become even more important."

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