Football

Aubameyang’s reward for returning Barcelona to Champions League could be getting replaced by Haaland

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Barcelona’s nearest LaLiga rivals — Real Betis, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Real Sociedad and their next opponents at Camp Nou, Athletic Club — will be roaring Xavi’s team on to victory in Naples on Thursday.

The Europa League, which they are in danger of exiting after only managing a 1-1 draw with Napoli in the first leg of their playoff to reach the knockout phase, isn’t merely Barcelona’s last opportunity of a trophy this season — it’s also a route into the fabulous wealth of next season’s Champions League. That’s pretty important when your debt is piled as high as theirs.

There’s a brilliant battle for the top four in Spain right now, with fourth and eighth separated by just five points, so if Napoli send Barcelona into the ignominy of exiting European competition by late February, the Camp Nou side will obviously need to fight tooth and nail for the remainder of the domestic season if they want a top-four slot. That would mean extra threat for Betis, Atleti, Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Athletic (stream LIVE Sunday at 2:50 pm ET on ESPN+ in the US). If Barcelona pull off a big result, though, there will arguably be a distraction to their domestic efforts: more matches, more chances of players being tired or injured. At face value, it’s what their LaLiga rivals would want.

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You’d also doubt that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang feels any dilemma on the subject of whether it’s preferable for him and Barcelona to progress, but perhaps he should anticipate that there’s a conflict of interest. The Gabon international — who’s just become the first player this century to score a hat trick in Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, the Premier League and LaLiga — is at Barcelona because his new manager, one of the guys who saw Mikel Arteta off the premises back in 2002, has a different temperament to the Arsenal boss.

Xavi also has very different, much more urgent needs, including signing a guy who’s often declared that he promised his grandfather he’d one day sign for Real Madrid. Now here he is in Blaugrana. Aubameyang’s performance in Barcelona’s 4-1 win at Valencia (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the US), plus flashes of connection with Ferran Torres against Napoli last week, mark him down as the guy most likely to do damage to Luciano Spalletti’s Serie A title challengers. Whether it’s wholly in his interests to do so is a moot point.

Barcelona — especially their president, Joan Laporta — are incredibly serious about signing Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland this summer. Madrid want both the Norwegian and Kylian Mbappe, but the Paris Saint-Germain No. 7 is their priority. What’s being sold to Haaland, with all the power that Laporta can muster, is that he’s better off opposing Madrid’s Mbappe era than joining it. If Haaland joins it, there’s the possibility of having to be behind France’s World Cup winner in the pecking order. That’s the spiel, at least.

Laporta has such a superfluity of charm, when he wants to, that if it were an energy source you could probably do away with oil, natural gas and wind power. He’s using all that fizzing energy to sell this phenomenal striker the dream of leading Barcelona’s « underdog » charge against Mbappe-powered Madrid for the next several seasons in a re-modeled version of the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that we’ve all just had the pleasure of living through — or forced upon us, depending on your view. For an ambitious, independent-minded kid like Haaland, it’s a tempting prospect, I guess. You’ll be second fiddle to Mbappe when you go thereBarcelona will be whispering in the Dortmund star’s ear. They want him much more than they want youis the unease they’re trying to plant in the Norwegian’s head. We’ll pay you as much as they will. And there’s the rub.

It must have been brutally disheartening, even for Laporta’s industrial-rubber confidence, to see LaLiga president Javier Tebas state that « Madrid will get Mbappe and Haaland » on the basis that he believes Barcelona’s finances can’t compete. What’s certain is that if Aubameyang’s goals don’t fire the Blaugrana to win the Europa League or into the top four by May, then not only will they not have the finances to sign Haaland, the Norwegian simply won’t join them if they ain’t playing top-table football next season.

If Haaland comes then, let’s not beat about the bush: He’s playing leading the line. In a 4-3-3. No twin centre-forwards. Aubameyang, who’s has a contract at Camp Nou for at least another season, potentially with a second full campaign to follow, will be shunted to the wing — or the bench. What a repayment that would be. Should the ex-Dortmund striker deliver the goods, having hit the absolute nadir of his career at Arsenal, it’ll be one hell of a story. The reward for which would be having his position taken away.

It’s already been interesting to watch Aubameyang’s mini-renaissance at Camp Nou. Right now, nobody in Spain is talking about the fact that, in essence, he was sacked by Arsenal. Perhaps his exit was not as blunt as that in pure legal terms, but he was stripped of the captaincy, dropped from the squad, left behind when the Gunners went to their winter training camp and then allowed to leave for free. Draw your own conclusions. OK, Aubameyang couldn’t get to LaLiga quickly enough because this was a move he absolutely cherished. But from the moment Arteta gave up on the Gabon star until he snuck under the finishing tape on transfer deadline day it was, in modern terms, ultra fast. Like him, in fact.

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For now, everything is sweet as a nut. Xavi told Aubameyang he’d be the centre-forward, not just another wide player, and the 32-year-old represents precisely the type of No. 9 Xavi used to like to play behind. Barcelona need, particularly against the tremendously disciplined and defensively intelligent Napoli, a central striker who can show pace when the ball is played forward rapidly on the counterattack — either into channels or over the top of a high defensive line. That’s Aubameyang.

Xavi also wants a striker who can play bang on the shoulder of the last defender when the opposition’s back four is in a deep block, someone who can push the rival’s back line as far away as possible from passers like Gavi, Pedri, Sergio Busquets and Frankie de Jong. He wants a space creator. That, too, is Aubameyang.

It’s a coincidence that he’s now playing for Xavi, who was one of the massive obstacles in Arteta’s path when he was weighing up whether to stay and fight for his future at Camp Nou 20 years ago. They are about the same height, carry the same saturnine appearance, played very similar positions and both have Pep Guardiola as a coaching guru. But while the Basque wanted Aubameyang out, at almost any cost, Xavi, right now, is a snug as a bug in a rug with his maverick goal scorer. Most of Aubameyang’s managers were, at least initially. And why not? He’s special, in many ways — good and bad.

Stories about his pace are no exaggeration. While training with AC Milan as a youth (what a mistake the Italian club made in trading him away before he reached maturity), he clocked 3.7 seconds over a 30-metre sprint. Much was made of the fact that when sprint legend Usain Bolt set his 2009 100m record in Berlin, he was eight-hundredths of a second slower over the same distance.

Aubameyang is not simply a flash of lightning, though. He’s a bit flash, too. Lime green boots encrusted with some 4,000 Swarovski crystals? Check. Mad cockatoo hairstyles. Check. Dressing up as Batman (his comic-book idol) to celebrate a Dortmund goal with Marco Reus giving a Boy Wonder mask? Check. Nipping off to Milan for a friend’s birthday when his manager banned him from going? Check. He’s described himself by saying: « I’ve been lucky that I can buy beautiful things. … As they say: You only live once. … And as long as I know where I’m from, it’s all just a bonus whether flash clothes or cars. … I like to live. If people accept me as I am, well, beautiful! If not, then just don’t. » Arteta couldn’t. Xavi can — at the moment.

The first priority, now, is for Barcelona’s new Batman to bash Napoli out of the way. If Aubameyang’s antics lead to his new club to not only being able to afford Haaland but actually persuading the Norwegian to swap Dortmund for Camp Nou, then the priority for this mercurial, maddening, occasionally majestic striker will be to accept, adapt and remember, as he says himself, that you only live once.

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