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'I feel responsible' - Aubameyang out for Arsenal redemption after season from hell

5:00 pm AEST 6/5/21
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Arsenal 2020-21
The Gunners captain has endured a difficult campaign, but still has the chance to be the hero in the Europa League semi-final against Villarreal

It is almost two years to the day since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fired Arsenal to the Europa League final.

The Gabon international has had plenty of huge moments for the Gunners since his move from Borussia Dortmund, but none more so than on May 9, 2019, when he silenced a raucous Mestalla in sensational fashion.

Trailing 3-1 from the first leg of the semi-final at Emirates Stadium, Valencia were full of momentum after an early Kevin Gameiro goal, but Aubameyang sucked the life out of the Spanish side and their supporters with a fabulous equaliser on 17 minutes.

Just over an hour later and he was sitting in the away changing room posing for pictures with the match ball following a breathtaking hat-trick which had handed Arsenal a 4-2 win and booked their spot in the final.

“I think it was my best performance since I’ve been here at Arsenal,” Aubameyang recalled this week. “It was a really great game.”

That night in Valencia was arguably Aubameyang’s greatest in an Arsenal shirt, although his heroics in the FA Cup last season, when he almost single handedly won the Gunners the trophy with his goals in the semi-final against Manchester City and the final against Chelsea, push it close.

But few will ever forget that performance in Valencia and the ruthlessness he showed in the most pressurised of situations.

Now, two years on, Arsenal need their talisman to do it all over again.

On Thursday, they head into the second leg of another Europa League semi-final, but this time they do not have a lead to protect.

Last week’s 2-1 defeat in Villarreal has left their season teetering on the edge of collapse. If things go wrong, the inquest will be immediate and brutal.

Mikel Arteta needs his big players to perform, and there is no-one bigger in this Arsenal squad than Aubameyang.

“He is very hungry to do something,” Arteta said ahead of the game. “He is in a good place right now.”

Arsenal’s disappointing form this season can certainly be traced back to the fact that their captain has endured a difficult campaign, both on and off the pitch.

When Aubameyang signed his new contract just after the win at Fulham on the opening weekend of the season back in September, there was optimism all around the Emirates.

The FA Cup and the Community Shield had just been tucked safely away in the trophy cabinet, and a striker who had scored 55 goals in 86 Premier League games, more than any player in that timeframe, had just committed his long-term future to the club.

But almost as soon as the ink started to dry on the contract, things started to go wrong.

Aubameyang went on a run of scoring just one goal in 11 league games, and without their talisman finding the net on a regular basis, Arsenal hit a slump that saw them head into Christmas sitting 15th in the table and just four points above the relegation zone.

Things have improved on the pitch since then, with Arteta’s side now up to ninth and Aubameyang having scored 10 times in 18 appearances since the turn of the year, but off the pitch things have remained difficult for the Gunners' skipper.

He was given a leave of absence by the club in January to spend some time with his sick mother before last month contracting malaria while away with Gabon during the international break.

The 31-year-old was also dropped for the north London derby victory against Tottenham at Emirates Stadium after arriving late for the game.

“I had some really bad seasons at the beginning of my career, but definitely over the past few years, this has been the most difficult,” Aubameyang admitted this week.

“It has been a really tough year because I had some issues on and off the pitch, but I’m feeling confident for the end of the season. I’m hungry and I want to finish it well for the club.

“I want to give something back because people were expecting me to score more goals and give something a bit more. I want to lead.

“Maybe I feel a bit responsible that we are in this situation right now, but we still have this opportunity to change it with this game [against Villarreal] and then hopefully we can go to the final and win it.”

Aubameyang is expected to start against Villarreal, despite admitting that physically he does yet feel 100 per cent following his battle with malaria.

He returned to the starting lineup for the first time at the weekend and scored the second goal in what was a confidence boosting 2-0 win for Arsenal at Newcastle in the Premier League.

That victory at St James’ Park, however, only lifted Arteta’s side to within seven points of sixth-placed Tottenham, and with just four league games remaining there is now an acceptance at Arsenal that the only way they will be playing in Europe next season is if they go on and win the Europa League.

Failure to do so will see the club will miss out on European qualification for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign, and it will have a big impact on what can be done financially this summer in the transfer market.

“This is why I am really excited to play this game,” said Aubameyang. “It is a big game and it’s a big moment for all of us.

“This is maybe the biggest game of my Arsenal career."

Aubameyang heads into this week's semi-final having scored 15 goals from 35 appearances this season.

Most strikers would be satisfied with that tally, but for a player Villarreal boss Unai Emery described as "a killer" in the build-up to Thursday night's game, he knows it is well below the standard he has set in recent campaigns.

But despite everything that has gone on, Aubameyang still has an opportunity to make himself the hero.

He did it two years ago in the Mestalla. Now Arsenal need their captain to step up and deliver once again.