Fit-again Alexandre Lacazette eyes dream homecoming in the Europa League
It will not have escaped Alexandre Lacazette's attention that, if everything goes to plan for Arsenal, the season will finish with a showpiece night in Lyon. The city of the striker's birth. The club where he scored 129 goals in 275 appearances. The host city for the Europa League final on May 16.
There is a lot of football to be played before Lacazette can start ringing his childhood friends and arranging an early summer reunion but, as the striker returns to contention this weekend after finally shaking off an injury, it does provide Lacazette with a sharp focus as he tries to reassert himself in this Arsenal team.
What could be better than going back to his old haunt and showing just why Arsenal paid around £50 million to sign him in the summer?
It has been a strange season for Lacazette. His arrival set a new club record, which lasted a little over five months until it became clear that it would be possible for Arsenal to prise Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund and upgrade an attack in need of a replacement for the departing Alexis Sanchez.
His record up to that point had been modest, with nine goals in 28 appearances not exactly the return of a player in dominant goalscoring form, never mind one who commanded such a hefty price tag. His movement was nice, his link-up play tidy, but he faded badly in the second half of matches with Wenger repeatedly hooking him. "I felt that, without any objective measurement, that sometimes he struggled a bit more in the second part of the game, especially in the last 20 minutes, to create the movement he can," said Wenger this week, explaining why his record signing had finished only seven of 26 league matches.
After Aubameyang arrived the strategy was reversed: now Lacazette was on the bench hoping to get a late cameo. In fact, he only played one match in February before suffering the knee injury which had sidelined him until this week. Arsenal assistant manager Steve Bould was noncommittal in Thursday's news conference, saying that he was "not entirely sure" whether Lacazette would be ready to play against Stoke at home, but the chance is there at least. The wait is nearly over.
Aubameyang will surely start against Paul Lambert's side but for Lacazette, the real prize is gaining fitness for the Europa League, where his new rival in the Arsenal squad is cup-tied. CSKA Moscow visit Arsenal for the first leg of the quarterfinal on April 5 and that must be a realistic target for Lacazette. The only problem being that Danny Welbeck shone in his absence across two games against AC Milan in the last 16. Suddenly there is another barrier to his ambition.
Welbeck may have lead the line admirably in Milan, and scored two goals at home against the Italians, but his poor strike-rate means he will do well to cling onto his place in Europe. Lacazette was not purchased to be a player tussling with Welbeck for a place: he was brought in to reconfigure the Arsenal attack. It's just that less than half a year later, Arsenal suddenly found they could sign another player who could perform that job even better. Aubameyang is a genuine global star, a potentially transformative arrival. Lacazette is not. At least not yet.
It's been a disjointed and testing season for a 26-year-old playing outside his home country for the first time, and there have been countless examples of players who have needed a season to properly adjust to the demands of the Premier League. Lacazette has certainly given the impression of being one of those players caught out by the intensity of English football. Wenger hinted at that too. And the necessary readjustment period to adapt to the demands of a new league has been further complicated by injury.
Still, Aubameyang's arrival takes the pressure off Lacazette in the Premier League, and a goalscoring run in Europe which culminates in a trip back home to Lyon come May could be just the thing Lacazette needs to relaunch his Arsenal career.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport