Football news: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang faces a test of his mettle in Arsenal's blockbuster finale
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, having signed a blockbuster new contract in September, has struggled for form this season and had his timekeeping punished by Mikel Arteta on Sunday. But he has the ultimate chance for redemption as Arsenal look to secure their first European crown in 27 years and maintain their place in continental competition.
'Everything has been resolved in a really positive way' - Arteta on Aubameyang
The words 'Olympiacos home' are enough to send a shiver down the spines of everyone involved at Arsenal, fan, coach or player. It was 13 months ago that Arsenal let a 1-0 away win inexplicably turn into an away goals defeat to the Greek champions, chalking up yet another Emirates failure in Europe.
And things got even worse after the game, with Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis visiting several Arsenal players after the match, unwittingly carrying Covid-19 at the time. Before too long, Mikel Arteta had contracted the virus and football was suspended for three months as the UK tumbled into a lengthy lockdown.
For Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, events on the pitch will bring back awful memories. After losing 1-0 in regulation time, the club captain scored a spectacular bicycle kick with eight minutes left to play, which would have sent Arsenal through were it not for a strike from Youssef El-Arabi with 60 seconds to spare. Somehow, though, that fine goal Aubameyang had scored was eclipsed by an inexplicable miss. The enduring image of the night was not his special goal, but of him down on his haunches, head in hands.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang erzielte ein Traumtor gegen Olympiakos Athen
Image credit: Getty Images
It was a portrait of Aubameyang's Arsenal career. On countless occasions he has carried Arsenal through single-handedly winning points and even an FA Cup with little help from his team-mates.
On countless others he has been found wanting, missing critical chances which could have changed the course of a season - his poor penalty in the last minute away at Tottenham, two years ago, a handful of squandered opportunities apiece at Chelsea in 2018-19 and Manchester City this term, sit alongside the Olympiacos miss as sliding doors moments.
As Arsenal look to entertain their familiar Greek opponents once more, Aubameyang enters a huge match with a cloud over him. On Sunday, he watched on from the stands as his team-mates beat Spurs 2-1 in a huge derby win, dropped from the XI at the 11th hour after showing up late for the match, which Arteta deemed unacceptable conduct for the club captain. His final year or so at Borussia Dortmund was marred by similar instances.
It leaves the 31-year-old with a few points to prove as Olympiacos come to visit once more. During Aubameyang's two-and-a-half years at the Emirates prior to this campaign, there could be no doubting who was the best player at Arsenal. But so uncharacteristic had his form been earlier in the season that Bukayo Saka or Kieran Tierney have overtaken him as the team's star performer. As much promise as they both showed last season, it seemed unthinkable when Aubameyang was waltzing through the Chelsea defence in the FA Cup final in August.
Arteta demands a 'ruthless' Arsenal despite win at Olympiacos
With Mesut Ozil shifted from the wage bill, Aubameyang is now comfortably Arsenal's highest earner after sealing a new contract last summer. Given Arsenal's history of handing big contracts to ageing players, that brought fresh pressure. Not only is he under pressure to provide the goals and lead a young team, he is now obliged to provide a financial return in a team shorn (albeit by controversy) of their most creative player.
But that financial return is in serious jeopardy. When Arsenal slipped out of the Champions League spots four years ago, they were widely considered to be unlucky, having racked up a number of points usually enough to be in the top four, with some wiggle room. This year, they will be lucky to finish in the top seven - in a season where seventh may well only secure a spot in the Europa Conference League, never mind the continent's second competition.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang warms up
Image credit: Getty Images
Which makes a run in the Europa League all the more important. Arsenal should reach the quarter-finals on Thursday, having bettered their result in Athens last season, with three away goals to boot. And their wins over Tottenham and Manchester United this season should give them confidence that they can better any of the other favourites left in the competition. Should United bow out to AC Milan on Thursday, they have good recent history at San Siro to encourage them.
As Arsenal's league form has gradually collapsed over the years, they have become a better and better cup side, reaching a final in all but one of the last seven years. But Europe has always been a weak point in the club's all-time CV, as they have won just one Cup Winners' Cup and the Fairs Cup in the black-and-white era.
Since their last European title in 1994, they have lost four finals - a year later, David Seaman was lobbed by the halfway line in the dying seconds of the showpiece. Under Arsene Wenger they contrived to lose on penalties to Galatasaray in the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup and let a 1-0 lead slip in the final 10 minutes in the 2006 Champions League, when Thierry Henry had missed good chances to put the match to bed. And Aubameyang was virtually absent in 2019, when Unai Emery's side were humiliatingly thumped 4-1 by Chelsea in this competition.
If Aubameyang can rediscover his best form in the remainder of the competition and lead his side to more silverware, he will write his name into club folklore and add to his own medal collection, which remains astonishingly bare for a player of his calibre.