Darke: Aubameyang's absence will truly test Arteta
Africa's players were at the centre of a pulsating Crystal Palace-Arsenal clash in the English Premier League on Saturday, as fans witnessed the best and the worst of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Jordan Ayew rescued a point for the hosts.
The Gunners have shown some improvement since Mikel Arteta took the reins at the Emirates Stadium, and it appeared, after 12 minutes, as though their fine run was set to continue.
Aubameyang is currently Arteta's choice to captain the Londoners, and his finish on 12 minutes was the highlight of a glowing opening half-hour for Arsenal, the Gabon international snapping a shot past the impressive Vicente Guaita after being played in by Alexandre Lacazette following marvellous interplay from the Gunners.
However, their strong opening showing didn't mask the brittleness of this Arsenal side, and they were pegged back 10 minutes into the second half, when Cheikhou Kouyate found Ayew, whose effort deflected off David Luiz and went beyond Bernd Leno.
The equaliser was well deserved for Palace's endeavour as they withstood Arsenal's dominance, and it represented another big moment in an excellent season for Ayew, a £2.5 million signing in the summer, as he added his sixth of the campaign.
The Ghana international has also enjoyed superb fortune against Arsenal this term, and his strike on Saturday makes him the first Palace player since John Craven in the 1971-72 season to score home and away against the Gunners in the same campaign.
There was to be another major African twist to this tale, when Aubameyang was dismissed in the 67th minute, after a late, high challenge on Max Meyer. Hence he followed in his manager's footsteps, six years after Arteta scored and was then dismissed at the same venue, against the same opponents, in October 2013. Aubameyang's foul appeared initially to be fairly innocuous - the striker receiving a swift booking - but upon VAR review, it clearly demanded a greater sanction and he received the first red card of his career.
"I'm not accusing Aubameyang of trying to injure [Meyer]," Palace boss Roy Hodgson said after the match. "I am sure he didn't. It is the type of challenge a forward trying to recover and show the right degree of aggression sometimes makes."
Arteta was more critical of the tackle, but also moved to exonerate his player of any malevolent intention.
"It looked nasty," Arteta said. "Knowing Auba, there's no intention to make such a tackle. Hopefully [Meyer] hasn't been injured, and we're sorry for that. The decision was made and we have to accept it."
Accept it, Arsenal must, but living with it may be a different story through Premier League bouts with Sheffield United and Chelsea, and the FA Cup meeting with Bournemouth.
The troubled North Londoners have become increasingly reliant on the striker in recent months; he has 15 league goals this term, after 22 last season, while Lacazette hasn't scored in six matches and no other Gunners has scored more than one goal away from home all term.
"It's a massive blow," Arteta said.
"We know how important Auba is for the team."
Elsewhere, Manchester City overtook Leicester City to claim second place on the ladder, 14 points behind leaders Liverpool, with their 6-1 demolition of Aston Villa away. Riyad Mahrez buried any disappointment he may have had at missing out on CAF's African Footballer of the Year award with a sublime showing, scoring twice inside the first 24 minutes to set City on their way to a fine victory.
Sergio Aguero and his hat-trick stole the headlines, but it's worth noting that Mahrez is the only player in the Premier League to have contributed both 20 assists and 20 goals since the start of last term.
"[In] the final third he has something special," City manager Pep Guardiola said in his post-match press conference. "Always, I have the feeling he can score a goal. The level he played last season was good too, he loves to play football."
Also on Sunday, Ismaila Sarr continued his revival under Nigel Pearson at Watford, as he contributed the decisive assist for Abdoulaye Doucoure's 42nd minute opener in a 3-0 victory at Bournemouth.
Sarr has been directly involved in four goals in six matches since the ex-Leicester coach's arrival, having previously scored one and contributed zero assists in his previous nine league matches.
As the majority of La Liga's teams competed in the Copa del Rey last weekend, Thomas Partey's Atletico Madrid contested the Spanish Supercopa final against fierce city rivals Real Madrid.
It was an outing to forget for the Ghana midfielder, who received a booking in regular time and then missed a penalty in the shootout following a 0-0 draw across 90 minutes and extra-time.
Real ran out 4-1 winners in the shootout after Saul Niguez and Partey had missed their penalties, although the Black Stars midfielder did create two goalscoring opportunities during the contest.
In the second round of the Spanish Cup, Oghenekaro Etebo 's debut for Getafe, following his loan move from Stoke City, ended in disappointment, as they were downed 2-0 at third-tier Badalona.
The Nigeria midfielder played the final 20 minutes as Getafe sought a winner, but he could not prevent them being hit by a late double from their hosts.
His compatriot at Leganes, Chidozie Awaziem, fared much better, with his team thumping Real Murica 4-0 away as Javier Aguirre continues to oversee a remarkable turnaround for Los Pepineros.
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There were major African contributions the French league resumed following a three-week hiatus.
Islam Slimani rescued a point for AS Monaco in a thriller against Paris Saint-Germain, netting a 70th-minute equaliser to conclude a rollercoaster 3-3 encounter in which both sides had led at stages.
The striker's goal secured a point in Robert Moreno's first Ligue 1 bout, but there was an air of controversy about the effort, as the ball found Slimani -- in an offside position -- via a deflection of PSG's Marquinhos.
VAR legitimised the goal after the linesman had initially flagged for offside.
After another dysfunctional midfield display from the reigning champions, exasperated coach Thomas Tuchel was forced to defend his decision to pair Idrissa Gueye with Marco Verratti in the heart of the park.
"Do you think differently, that they are not complementary?" he said after the match. "Do you think I would start the two if I thought they're not complementary? Doesn't make sense, right?"
Andy Delort netted an 83rd-minute winner for Montpellier as they bounced back following an Amiens opener through Bakaye Dibassy to win 2-1 away, while Ghana's John Boye scored the only goal of the game as Metz beat Strasbourg 1-0.
Hamza Mendyl and Boubakary Soumare were both sent off as Julio Tavares' goal settled Dijon's 1-0 victory over Lille, while Bafode Diakite 's double in four first-half minutes for bottom-club Toulouse wasn't enough to prevent a miserable 5-2 home defeat by Brest.
Africa Cup of Nations winner Mehdi Abeid also scored his first goal of the season as Nantes ran out 2-0 winners at Saint-Etienne.
With Kwadwo Asamoah and Kalidou Koulibaly absent, there was no African involvement at the summit of Serie A table last weekend, although Torino's African players again performed with credit in their excellent showing in a 1-0 home victory over Bologna.
The Turin heavyweights have lost just once since Nov. 23, and an improving defensive record has underpinned their climb up the table.
Cameroon's Nicolas Nkoulou has been imperious in the heart of the backline, starring in the 2-0 win at AS Roma earlier this month, and following up with a commanding display against Bologna.
His defensive partner Koffi Djidji ended the contest with six completed tackles, while Nigeria's Ola Aina -- on the left flank -- ended the game with five completed interceptions.
Higher up the field, Franco-Ivorian midfielder Soualiho Meite produced his best performance of the season, dribbling past his opponent on seven occasions during a magnificent box-to-box display.