Europa League: Osimhen vs Aubameyang confrontation leads African storylines

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Both frontmen are under varying degrees of pressure to prove a point in the knockout round play-offs in Europe’s secondary club competition

If anyone had intimated at the start of the season that Victor Osimhen and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be on opposite sides in the Europa League knockout play-off rounds months later, eyebrows would have been raised.

Indeed, had it been reiterated on December 13, after the draw in Nyon, it would still have sounded unbelievable. Admittedly, the Gabon star had just been stripped of the Arsenal captaincy by Mikel Arteta at the time, but few imagined his exit from North London would be so hastened.

The La Liga giants’ late move for the 32-year-old frontman has brought about a meeting between the pair many reckon are at the opposite ends of their careers. Osimhen, 23, is not in his prime years, whereas Auba’s seeming drop-off in productivity since an impressive 2019/20 campaign suggests he is on the wane.

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It is a claim the ex-Arsenal skipper seeks to invalidate, even as Xavi’s team participate in a tournament staunch fans may believe is beneath them. Barca have not competed in the Europa League since its 2009 rebrand and this year’s participation sees them feature in Europe’s secondary club competition for the first time since 2004.

Doubts remain over how seriously both sides will take the Europa League, although the Spanish giants' precarious La Liga position and the guarantee of the winner featuring in the following season’s Champions League mean Barca will fancy having that insurance if a top four spot eludes them.

“It's an opportunity. The main objective for the season is to get into the Champions League for next year and there are two ways: finish in the top four in the league or win the Europa League,” Xavi stated on Wednesday. “It is European competition and we need the fans.”

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Arsenal 2021-22

As for Auba, it will not be out of place to suggest his stock fell in the last few months, owing to the decline in his previously excellent goalscoring numbers.

With his manager suggesting the striker is now back in prime shape, a first start may be in the offing for the frontman who would be desperate to show his decisive quality at Camp Nou on Thursday.

While a face-off with Osimhen may be in doubt, with Napoli revealing the zestful Nigerian missed training on Wednesday as a precautionary measure, Spalletti’s outward interest in the competition signifies the Super Eagle will play in some capacity.

Victor Osimhen Leicester Napoli Europa League 16092021

The marksman packs a punch and was the club’s performer in the group stage despite starting once from four performances altogether. This did not prevent a four-goal return, accounting for 36 percent of the Partenopei’s goals.

Be that as it may, Spalletti’s constant tough love stance with Osimhen has been a recurring theme all season. The Napoli boss’ latest assessment of the frontman seemed to query his inclination to break off from the team’s approach after a 1-1 draw with Inter Milan at the weekend, although the ex-Roma boss equally praised his frontman’s potential.

Osimhen, Koulibaly

Along with Kalidou Koulibaly — fresh from winning the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal — and Andre Zambo Anguissa, the Azzurri’s African contingent ought to play starring roles over both fixtures.

Over in North Rhine-Westphalia, Joe Aribo leads Rangers’ Africans against a Borussia Dortmund side that suffered an unforeseen exit from the Champions League group stage. The silky midfielder ought to start, although the Gers will be without centre-back Leon Balogun, whom Giovanni van Bronckhorst hopes will return for next week’s return fixture at Ibrox.

Balogun’s absence could mean Calvin Bassey deputises at the heart of the defence, moving away from his preferred left-back berth.

Erling Haaland Dortmund 2021-22

It remains to be seen if Erling Haaland starts on Thursday, having been spotted in training.

Marco Rose ruled out his star striker against Rangers, preventing a direct Bassey-Haaland face-off.

Zambia forward Fashion Sakala will be an option off the bench for the Scottish giants if need be.

Porto against Lazio is arguably one tie between two somewhat evenly matched sides, and Zaidu Sanusi is likely to feature at left-back against Maurizio Sarri’s men.

Zaidu Sanusi of FC Porto

The Portuguese giants defeated the Italian side en route to claiming their 2002/03 UEFA Cup crown, and they will fancy themselves for a positive result on home turf with Ciro Immobile’s absence certain to weaken the Biancocelesti.

Henry Onyekuru and Youssef El Arabi are headline acts from Olympiacos’ African contingent looking to inflict further misery on an injury-hit Atalanta side in both sides’ first-ever meeting.

Apart from the aforementioned pair, Mady Camara, Aguibou Camara, Pierre Kunde, Pape Abou Cisse and Ousseynou Ba will hope to aid the Greek side’s attempts to eliminate Gian Piero Gasperini’s troops.

Amadou Haidara has been in fine form since returning from Afcon duty with Mali, and he is in line for a start when RB Leipzig host Real Sociedad in another first-time encounter in Europe.

Morocco pair Youssef En-Nesyri and Bono ought to turn out for Sevilla who are favourites to progress past Dinamo Zagreb.

Youssef En-Nesyri Sevilla La Liga 2021-22

Julen Lopetegui claimed this title post-lockdown in 2019/20, a feat he will want to repeat this term, to make up for a shock Champions League exit.

Sheriff Tiraspol and Sporting Braga meet in European competition for the first time, and the trio of Adama Traore, Momo Yansane and Edmund Addo look to outdo Braga’s Mutassim Ali Musrati who featured in five of the Portuguese side’s six group stage fixtures.

The Europa League may not carry the prestige of the Champions League, but it is seldom devoid of special storylines.

This year’s changed format has precipitated captivating fixtures between sides many will consider Champions League quality, adding to the interest in this week’s contests.

Some of Africa’s finest go toe-to-toe on Thursday striving to gain the upper hand ahead of next week’s reverse fixtures, all aiming to make it to the round of 16 in March.

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