Aubameyang departure leaves Gabon hungrier than before for AFCON success

Gabon believe the departure of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can be a source of strength for the national side as they look to reach the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in a decade.

Aubameyang and midfielder Mario Lemina were allowed to return to Europe on Monday to conduct more in-depth medical examinations after tests showed they still had coronavirus residue in their systems despite testing negative for COVID-19.

The squad the Arsenal man leaves behind are confident that his departure -- and that of Lemina -- can be a significant motivating factor as they face Morocco in their final Group C fixture on Tuesday.

"Already, their absence when they were declared positive gave us strength to be able to hold on longer," forward Axel Meye, himself recently recovered from COVID-19, told ESPN.

"Today we're living with it.

"We're sorry about things, we need them in this competition, but it's better that they're going back to their clubs.

"If I was in their situation, I'd want them to look at the problem more deeply, and see what the problem with the heart is."

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Auba didn't feature in the tournament for the Panthers, missing their victory over Comoros while he was isolating after a positive test on Jan. 6 and then the draw with Ghana after a medical intervention from the Confederation of African Football.

"It hurts us to not have our captain," Meye said.

"He's a world-class player, and he's not the only one -- Mario isn't there either -- but we're motivated twice as much as usual.

"He's with us, even if he can't play, we're giving everything with him there beside us."

Meye, who plays with Ittihad Tanger in the Moroccan top flight, is desperate to make an impact in the tournament after sitting out Gabon's first two matches due to COVID.

Now, without Aubameyang, Lemina and influential wideman Denis Bouanga -- another recent coronavirus case -- Meye could be primed to step into a key role for head coach Patrice Neveu.

"It's been very difficult, to be at my first AFCON and find myself sick," Meye said. "When you're isolated, all you want is to return; it's your only focus.

"You see others training, giving their all, so you fight hard to get back. I hope to bring the maximum to the team because Pierre, Mario and Denis are three important players."

Gabon also have substitute goalkeeper Noubi Fotso, left-back David Sambissa, midfielder Serge Ngouali and striker Ulrick Eneme Ella absent after positive diagnoses, although Neveu can welcome back defensive trio Lloyd Palun, Sidney Obissa and Gilchrist Nguema, as well as attacker Kevin Mayi.

"The absences [of Aubameyang, Lemina and Bouana] force us to manage, compensate, integrate new players, and we're even obliged to give them new roles," Neveu said.

"Of course, it's an opportunity for others to show themselves off in a competition of such a level.

"However, talent can't be replaced just like that. We'll put a lot into this, but the loss of these three players means that at some point in the competition you'll pay ... it's inevitable."

A point for Gabon against Morocco on Tuesday will be enough to take them into the knockouts for the first time since 2012, when they fell to Mali in a quarterfinal penalty shootout, with Aubameyang missing the decisive spot-kick.