Europa League: Auba and Osimhen seek revenge for missing out on the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations

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Both missed out on the African Cup of Nations (CAN) in January but are hoping to bounce back on the European stage: strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) and Victor Osimhen (Nigeria) have revenge on Thursday in the Europa League with the first leg of the play-off between Barcelona and Napoli.

In this double-header, the winner of which will qualify for the last 16, the responsibility is huge on the shoulders of the two centre-forwards: Victor Osimhen, who is uncertain, must prove that he is indeed Napoli's attacking reference, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, recruited in January by Barça, will be hoping to lead the Catalan club, which is more used to playing in the first half of the UEFA Champions League, to the Europa League title, a competition that Barça is returning to 18 years later.

But at Camp Nou, "Auba" still has everything to prove. The Gabonese are currently suffering from the comparison with the two other attacking recruits attracted by Barça this winter from the Premier League (Ferran Torres from Manchester City and Adama Traoré from Wolverhampton).

Ferran Torres has one goal and two assists in his first five games for Barcelona, while Adama Traore, a constant presence on the right-wing, has already provided two assists in two games for his parent club Barça.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, on the other hand, has not yet distinguished himself. Snubbed by Mikel Arteta at Arsenal in recent weeks and testing positive for Covid-19 before the start of the African Cup of Nations (he had to leave the Gabonese national team due to "heart damage" caused by the coronavirus), the speedy centre-forward played just 30 minutes in each of his first two La Liga appearances, against Atletico Madrid and Espanyol Barcelona.

Despite this, this great lover of Spain in general and Madrid in particular, whose family is originally from Avila (north-west of Madrid), quickly won over the Blaugrana fans by being inducted as a socio (supporter-shareholder) of Barça during his presentation.

Auba, who joined Barça in the final hours of the summer transfer window and is under contract until June 2025 with a €100m release clause, also received thanks from Barça president Joan Laporta, who praised the player's "financial efforts" and his "desire" to come and play for Barça.

"He needed a few training sessions with the group to get back into the swing of things, but now he's 100% and we'll see him play on Thursday for sure," Xavi promised in a press conference on Wednesday.

The Italian club said that Victor Osimhen, who did not take part in Napoli's training session on Wednesday due to a right knee problem, was not so sure. He, too, had to pull out of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament with Nigeria after suffering multiple facial fractures in an airborne collision in November, which required surgery and means he is currently wearing a protective mask.

But after almost two months out of action, the 23-year-old centre-forward returned to action in early February, scoring in his first post-injury start on 6 February. The striker, who arrived from Lille for €75m in the summer of 2020, showed with a header that he was back without any apprehension.

The Nigerian, whose first season in Italy had already been disrupted by a long absence (dislocated shoulder), was again decisive last weekend in the Serie A summit clash against Inter Milan (1-1), winning a penalty.

"He has infinite potential. I'm sure he'll be able to do it again," he said. "I'm sure he'll be able to do it again, but I'm sure he'll be able to do it again," he added.

He is expected to be more effective in the league (six goals in 15 games) but in the Europa League, he has scored four times in three appearances.

The two strikers will meet in Europe's biggest stadium, the Camp Nou, on Thursday before the return leg in Naples on 24 February. A prestigious venue for a gala play-off, and two expected soloists.

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