Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's Arsenal inactivity no concern for Gabon as captain returns

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may not have played football for more than a month, and he may have been in isolation for six days after testing positive for COVID-19, but Gabon have absolutely no concerns about his fitness and sharpness as they prepare to welcome him back on Friday.

After winning their opening Africa Cup of Nations fixture against Comoros 1-0 on Monday, Gabon can reach the knockout stages when they face Ghana at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde. They welcome back their star striker for the encounter after he returned a negative COVID test, and while Aubameyang hasn't played since Dec. 6, his team are confident he's primed to make a big impact at the tournament.

"We're all professionals, and Pierre's had a long career," Gabon full-back Johann Obiang told ESPN. "He's prepared himself for a long career, and even though at his club he hasn't played much, we have no concerns about his physical state or his form. He'll do it on the pitch, and even if he's played fewer minutes with his club, that won't pose any problems for him."

Aubameyang last started a match on Dec. 2, when he featured for 79 minutes as Arsenal were defeated 3-2 at Manchester United. Since then, he's only played five minutes -- against Everton on Dec. 6 -- before being suspended by the club and stripped of the captain's armband following a breach of club rules.

Gunners head coach Mikel Arteta ordered the former Premier League Golden Boot winner to train away from the first team until the Nations Cup, and Aubameyang's preparation for the tournament was further affected by a positive COVID diagnosis upon his arrival in Yaounde.

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"The squad and the staff were all happy to learn that he'd tested negative," Obiang continued, "we're very happy to welcome back our captain. We know the impact he has on the group, the impact he has in meetings, and the pressure he can put on the opposition defence.

"We are all aware that the Nations Cup is a tough tournament, and we want our best assets available to give us something more for the matches to come."

Head coach Patrice Neveu told ESPN on Monday that Aubameyang had been doing individual training sessions and working on an exercise bike in isolation in his hotel room in a bid to be fit for the Nations Cup when he was available again.

Since then, Neveu himself has tested positive for COVID, and assistant coach Anicet Yala will oversee the team for their second group game against Ghana while the manager is in isolation. Yala told ESPN that the forward will be back in contention for the fixture -- potentially alongside Aaron Boupendza, match winner against Comoros -- and anticipates that he'll help the Panthers have the edge over the Black Stars.

"It's clear that when you face a player of the level of Aubameyang, you have to pay attention," Yala told ESPN. "Look at his talent. Always, one's opponents force you to adapt, to change, and so of course [Ghana] will have to change things with our captain returning.

"We hope to succeed in having both Aubameyang and Boupendza, as well as [Denis] Bouanga together up front," he concluded. "There's a big chance these three will play."

Gabon will also welcome back influential Galatasaray midfielder Mario Lemina, who tested positive for coronavirus alongside Aubameyang after the pair arrived in Cameroon following some leisure time in Abu Dhabi.

For Obiang, who contested the 2015 and 2017 AFCONs alongside Aubameyang, the true impact of the captain's return is off the pitch as well as on it.

"In terms of the behaviour in the group, he's always important," Obiang said. "He's someone who's available for everyone, for the youngest and the oldest, always present for us. That's important; he represents a big part of Gabon, and for that, and for his straightforwardness, we thank him a lot."

Gabon, who haven't reached the tournament's knockout stages since 2012, conclude their group-stage campaign with a meeting against Morocco in Yaounde on Jan. 18.