Fabregas: we have beaten the best team in history
The chant that boomed out around the Emirates on the final whistle could hardly have been delivered with more passion or satisfaction. "We’ve got Cesc Fabregas".
Yet there was a period of last summer when, had you visited a bookmaker, you would have received shorter odds on Fabregas wearing the colours of Barcelona this season than Arsenal.
Fabregas had told Arsene Wenger that he wanted to return home, two formal offers had been tabled and Arsenal were left with the unappealing choice of a weakened team or an unhappy captain.
Wenger, though, had season-defining occasions like this at the forefront of his mind when he refused to compromise on one of his genuinely world-class players and backed himself to man-manage Fabregas through the storm.
Fabregas immediately acknowledged the huge progress that has been made at Arsenal since he was so publicly pursued by Barcelona. “They don’t lose many games and they are the best side in football history in my opinion,” he said. “But we have only played half of this tie.’’
This was also an occasion for Fabregas to provide answers to some of the questions Fabregas has surely been asking himself. Can he fulfil his ambitions with this young Arsenal squad? Would his hunger be diminished by not getting his way? And could he even get into the Barcelona team?
As was rather undiplomatically pointed out by Peter Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, there remains considerable doubt over that final point.
Of the three central positions that Fabregas could conceivably fill, two are filled by arguably the greatest midfielders of this current era in Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. The third is taken by a holding specialist, Sergio Busquets.
Yet, as he proved in the World Cup final, the great quality of Fabregas — an ability to spot and execute defence-splitting passes — is pretty much unrivalled. That was also evident with his first significant touch last night when he delightfully lifted the ball over Gerard Pique to present Robin van Persie with a chance that was ultimately smothered by Victor Valdes.
Fabregas is less comfortable in tight spaces than some of his former Barcelona team-mates, but his ability to drive forward into dangerous areas was often superior. That relentless energy was a catalyst for Arsenal’s second-half revival, with his pass also beginning the move for Andrei Arshavin’s goal.
Wenger added: ''We are not favourites now but we believe we have a chance and will go for it. Barcelona are still favourites but we know we can beat them, which we didn’t know last year.’’
Fabregas’s desire has been admirably undiminished by Wenger’s refusal to let him join Barcelona. Yes, there have been flashes of petulance but at no stage has there been any question over his willingness to put his body on the line for Arsenal. He again covered more distance last night than any of his team-mates. His leadership, so often questioned, was also hugely impressive.
Always running, always cajoling, the influence of Fabregas helped inspire Jack Wilshere. When tempers threatened to boil over, it was Fabregas who stepped in with calming words for his team-mates.
Indeed, as Barcelona predictably enjoyed over 60 per cent of possession, there must have been moments, even amid such a memorable victory, when Fabregas wondered what he would become in such a team. A placard among the away supporters that simply bore the word 'Cesc’ was designed to tug further at his heartstrings.
Intriguingly, though, it was Fabregas who also delivered the very message of patience that Wenger would have been preaching directly to him over the past year. “My friends [Carles] Puyol and Xavi didn’t win anything until they were 26,” he said. “They always remind me to be patient, it will come.”
His contract does not expire until 2015, which puts Arsenal in a strong position for at least the next two years. He could potentially lead this young team into a new era of success. And then, in 2012 or 2013, he can choose where he will fulfil the peak years of his career. Increasingly, that decision no longer feels like a foregone conclusion.