“A gift from heaven,” was how Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez described the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the striker, discarded by Arsenal, has certainly delivered.
It is hard to think of a more significant January acquisition than Aubameyang, given his impact on Barca’s immediate and long-term future.
By the end of the season, Aubameyang’s goals could be the biggest factor in Barcelona finishing in La Liga’s top four, an achievement that could prove transformative.
He has scored nine goals in 12 games so far, including a hat-trick against Valencia and two against Real Madrid.
Missing out on the Champions League next season would have derailed Barcelona’s financial recovery and destabilised the entire project under Xavi, who looks an astute appointment now but was unproven when he took his first major coaching job in November.
Barcelona’s fortunes have turned around so dramatically that they now have two chances to qualify for the Champions League.
They could finish in the top four in La Liga, where they are second after overhauling Sevilla on Sunday, or they could win the Europa League where they are clear favourites.
They face Frankfurt on Thursday in the first leg of the quarter-finals, with the winner to face Lyon or West Ham in the last four.
The 32-year-old Aubameyang’s departure from Arsenal mid-season continues to cause debate in England, with some questioning Mikel Arteta’s decision to let the striker leave for free, particularly given the team’s struggles to score goals.
Many say the wisdom of that move will depend entirely on whether Arsenal finish in the Premier League’s top four and qualify for the Champions League for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
“I think (the problem) was just with him and after he made this decision, I can’t tell you much, he wasn’t happy and that’s it. I was not very happy, I was very calm and that’s it,” Aubameyang said in February of Arteta.
Perhaps more to the point is that in January, Arsenal and Barcelona had very different priorities.
While Arteta was nurturing and protecting a young Arsenal team for the future, Barcelona wanted to patch together a short-term squad capable of averting impending financial disaster.
Aubameyang’s disciplinary problems, age and lack of fitness meant he no longer fitted in with Arteta’s long-term vision.
– ‘A privilege to have him’ –
But his goals, talent and ego made him the perfect fit for a Barcelona side desperately in need of a quick fix.
“Auba has been a gift from heaven,” said Xavi.
“He is a player who is positive, has taken very well to the dressing room, he adapts very well to the needs of the team, he scores. It is a privilege to have him and he will contribute a lot to us.”
Barcelona’s veteran defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets agreed. “He’s working really well,” said the 33-year-old.
“He came needing more minutes but he’s getting them. I hope he keeps contributing like this because he’s a great guy. Getting him on a free transfer is a gift.”
Barcelona president Joan Laporta confirmed that Aubameyang’s contract runs until 2025 but has a break clause at the end of next season, in 2023.
He will be almost 34 by then and it seems entirely plausible that Barcelona, who still have enormous debts to erase and a hefty wage bill to trim, will move Aubameyang on.
It might well be that after an impressive first stage, Aubameyang’s own hunger and drive begin to fade. Barcelona could face the same problems Arsenal did.
Whatever the outcome it will still be hard to argue the deal for Aubameyang to join Barca was not a roaring success.
If Aubameyang does nothing else, his role in vindicating Xavi and securing qualification for the Champions League this season will have been immense, and for that Barca should always be grateful.