We all knew it would eventually happen. It was always only a matter of time until Cesc Fàbregas re-signed for Barcelona, but we, as Arsenal fans, cannot begrudge his move and our memories of him should not be clouded by his departure.
For the record, I believe he has made a huge mistake in returning now. He’s always going to be second in line to Xavi Hernandez and Andrès Iniesta (despite being better than the former), while the new contract awarded to Thiago Alacantra will go its way to securing him extra playing time; possibly leading to him being played ahead of Fàbregas.
But he has not betrayed Arsenal in any way, nor has he acted inappropriately. When compared to Liverpool’s ‘Captain Marvel’, ‘Leader’ and ‘Inspirational Figure’ Steven Gerrard, who has submitted numerous transfer requests and made so many threats to leave that I’ve lost count, and yet is still adored by the Anfield faithful, you cannot fault Fàbregas at all.
It’s worth noting that Fàbregas is from Barcelona, supported them growing up and played in their academy in his youth. By the sounds of it, he really just wants to go home. He began his trade at La Masia with the likes of Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi, while he retains friendships with Xavi, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets, to name but three. His family dwell in Barcelona and it’s his home. Any Arsenal fan thinking of criticising him should put themselves in his position - how many of them would turn down moves to Arsenal?
Rather than denigrate Fàbregas, we should remember the good times; the talent he displayed and the joy he provided. His arrival came in 2003/04, when he became Arsenal’s youngest ever appearance maker and goalscorer. In 2004/05, when he burst onto the scene and became the club’s youngest ever League and Champions League goalscorer, going on to win the FA Cup - the only trophy in his time in North London. In 2005/06, Patrick Vieira was sold to make way for the then 18 year old. He was instrumental in the Champions League campaign that took Arsenal all the way to the final. All the while he was growing into a World class player. 2006/07 was a more quiet season for the club and Fàbregas, but he started every league game and made 16 assists. His stock was growing across Europe as Arsenal and he resisted overtures from the likes of Real Madrid, Milan and Barcelona.
2007/08 was the mark of a break even further forward for the Spaniard. As Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg left, Fàbregas became the key creative influence in the side and he did not disappoint. Arsenal were the surprise packages of the season, taking the league by storm. They played a fantastic brand of free-flowing, attacking football and the 20 year old Cesc Fàbregas was the fulcrum of the side. They were looking sure favourites to win the league until Eduardo’s horrific injury at St. Andrew’s where, as we can all remember, it completely fell apart. Fàbregas made 22 assists and grew as a goalscorer, too, scoring 13 - a record for him in a season. He was crowned PFA Young Player of the Year. Over the summer, he won the European Championships with Spain, having a pivotal role as an impact sub. 2008/09 was his first season as ‘El Capitan’, after William Gallas was stripped of the role. However, he was ruled out for four months with knee ligament damage and would not return to action until March. His presence was sorely missed, and Arsenal had another trophyless season.
If ever conformation of Fàbregas’s brilliance was needed, the 2009/10 season provided it in spades. In the first game alone, he racked up two goals and two assists, as Arsenal demolished Everton 6-1. He continued to score goals and provide assists - with a joint total of 38 (19 each, respectively), growing as a leader and an on-field presence. He was the subject of intense transfer speculation and the rumours of his departure were stronger than ever, and he certainly didn’t go out of his way to deny it, as he had in previous seasons. Meanwhile, he was crowned a World Cup winner, setting up the goal in the final. Arsenal held out and he remained with them for another season. At the start of his final season, his commitment could certainly not be doubted, but as injury set in and he was constantly rushed back too quickly, did was not the Cesc Fàbregas we had seen in years past. I attribute the injury he picked up against Stoke on February 23rd as the key reason Arsenal fell to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final. After that, we never really saw a fully fit Fàbregas again. His time at Arsenal ended with a whimper, rather than the roar it deserved, his final game being the 2-1 defeat to Bolton.
His talent is undeniable. His professionalism is, too. He’s shown a love, respect and affection for Arsenal, only topped by his adoration of Barcelona. The pleasant times El Capitan gave us must be remembered above all else. His first goal, making him the club’s youngest ever scorer. His announcing of himself onto the English football scene with his domineering show against Manchester United in the 2004 Community Shield. His defiance of his youth throughout his time, playing like someone with so many more years of experience behind him.
A personal favourite memory of Fàbregas is his stunning show against Juventus in the 2005/06 Champions League quarter final. He ran the rule over Patrick Vieira, the man who he had just replaced, and topped his performance with a goal. His 25 yard stunner against Tottenham and the 35 yard winner at the San Siro in 2007/08 are both well worth remembering. Though my standout memories of Fàbregas will be the goals against Spurs, Aston Villa, and Barcelona, respectively, in the 2009/10 season. I always enjoy a victory against Spurs, but the two goals in eleven seconds was a wonderful memory. As I was still celebrating Robin van Persie’s goal, I turn around and see the ball trailing into the net and Fàbregas wheeling away in delight. He’d managed to humiliate Spurs in less than five touches. The Villa goal was an example of a Captain doing his job. Arsenal were struggling for a goal and he produces a moment of magic. Simple.
The Barcelona goal was another special moment. Against his hometown club, with the pressure of millions watching and a broken bone in his leg, he smashed home his penalty. Fantastic show of grit, determination and passion, all of which Fàbregas embodies, along with style and magnificent technique and vision.
He is leaving the club at 24, with just one FA Cup to his name - much like a certain Liam Brady, who is undoubtedly one of the club’s legends, and to suggest otherwise is near-blasphemy (and rightly so). Although it is probable that the manner of Fàbregas’s departure will mean that he is not recognised as a legend - not straight away, at least.
Some may wish him ill in the future. They shouldn’t, he’s been a great player for us, and one who has fitted with the class on which Arsenal Football Club has always prided itself. (And even if you dislike him, remember - if he does well, Barcelona will have to pay up more!). No one can begrudge his desire to go home, all we can do is wish him the best of luck and thank him for the service he has done for us.
No one gave us a chance. Following on from last year’s thrashing at Barcelona’s hand, everyone assumed this was just another chapter of the same story and that a weaker Arsenal would get a more brutal beating from a stronger Barcelona.
Only this year there was a little more nouse about Arsenal, and far fewer injuries. Last year, there was no Robin van Persie, an injured William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin needing replacement before half time, an idiot between the posts, Cesc Fàbregas needing to be rushed back from injury, Alex Song at centre half, Denilson playing - in short, that team was in no fit state to tackle the strongest team around. This year, the only injury was to Thomas Vermaelen. Wojciech Szczesny would start in goal and they were not going to suffer from their own naïvety as their counterparts of the previous year had. The only real change to Barcelona was the switch of David Villa for Zlatan Ibrahimovic - a definite improvement.
Many of Barcelona’s games seem to follow a pattern - the opposition decide they’re going to ‘get in their faces’ and not be ‘pushed around’. This idea seems as though it is paying dividends until the clock reaches the tenth minute, at which point Barcelona become near-impossible to dispossess. From there it’s a slow, painful and demoralising death for the challengers, as the Catalans slowly drain them of their stamina, strength and in some cases, their collective will to live. Their ball retention is the best going, by far, but it was not a destruction à la their last Emirates Stadium encounter. Arsenal had a gameplan and it was working - push Barcelona up the pitch with the high line and aim to play on the counterattack. In rewatching the game, it was plain to see that the back four waited for Barcelona to get past Song and Jack Wilshere and then charged them down. This worked in places, but a high line is always a risk, especially against the forward line of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez.
The Catalans broke past the line of defence three times in the first half. Once it was a sloppy pass by Song that meant, five touches later, Messi was bearing down menacingly on the goal. It was a narrow escape as the little Argentine fired wide. Uncharacteristic, but credit must go to Szczesny, who held his ground and stayed on his feet until just before Messi opened fire. The second time led to a goal. Gaël Clichy was caught behind the line and Villa needed no second chance to exploit the yard of space his poor positioning provided. Villa rarely misses and Szczesny had no chance. Barcelona were now a goal up. It would then have been easy to let them run riot, but it did not shift Arsenal’s game plan. They were broken through a third time but Pedro’s eventual goal was (somewhat luckily) ruled out for offside.
Though this is not to say that Arsenal had no opportunities through the first half. They came closest on a counterattcking move, involving van Persie, Fàbregas and Theo Walcott, with the latter two in something of a role reversal, as Walcott supplied the through ball from the centre circle and Arsenal’s captain sprinting onto it down the right hand side. The pass was slightly overhit, but Fàbregas made it onto the end of it in time to send a cross towards van Persie, which was just headed away by Abidal. Walcott came close in the early stages, while van Persie was unlucky with one effort and foolish with another, taking too much time before shooting and allowing Gerard Piqué to recover and force his shot wide.
By the half it was 1-0 to the Catalans, but it was not all doom and gloom on the terraces. There was a cautious optimism amongst the Arsenal faithful. They were only a goal away and we were posing an attacking threat. All was most certainly not lost. Indeed, as the second half began, the home crowd were in full voice, as they had been through the first half, and would continue to be through the second. In its short life, the Emirates Stadium had never experienced such a raucous atmosphere, or anything approaching it. It was a relief, in some ways - if the rest of the crowd would not sing and shout on this, of all occasions, then they would never do so. The second 45 were slightly more open than the first had been, with there being a more potent flow to the games of both sides. All the while the Londoners were looking more and more likely to get a goal, but the threat of Barcelona was always a looming shadow, lurking in the background after every missed attempt on goal.
Credit here must go to Laurent Koscielny. He almost marked Messi out of the game and on one particular Barcelona attack, Pedro was clean through behind the line of defence until Koscielny miraculously managed to disposes him without bringing him down. It was a game that showed all his good qualities as a defender, and though he was liable at the Carling Cup final just two weeks on, it left me completely convinced of his abilities. As the game went back on forth, it was plain to see that it would not end 1-0 to Barcelona, but it could so easily have gone either way. On 78 minutes, Clichy produced a nice bit of improvisation, chipping the ball to the waiting van Persie in the area; what followed was spectacular. With Nicklas Bendtner arriving in the area, everyone assumed that the Dutchman’s next move would be to play to ball towards the big Dane, even Victor Valdes. Spying a football-sized gap between ‘keeper and post, van Persie opened fire. From the other end of the ground, where I was sat, we saw the ball disappear behind the figure of Valdes, then re-appear in the now rustling net.
The best thing about watching and rewatching clips of the goal is that as the television coverage shows the replays, the crowd are seeing them at the same time, and as the ball sneaks through that minute gap between Valdes and the upright, there is a clearly audible collective intake of breath. Many, myself included, initially thought there may have been an element of luck about the goal, but it’s clear to see van Persie knew exactly what he was doing. Now there was the belief that we could actually win this. We didn’t have long to wait for the second.
It was another example of the end-to-end nature of the match. Barcelona were on the attack, then Koscielny made the tackle, Bendtner played it short to Jack Wilshere - another who played fantastically - who played it short to Fàbregas, then two touches later, Samir Nasri was flying down the right hand side. As he slowed up, it looked as though the chance my have alluded him. The ball in looked misplaced, as it was behind the onrushing van Persie, but Nasri clearly saw more than we did. The ball fell to Arshavin and within a second the ball was again in the back of Valdes’s net. Delight. The Emirates had never felt that level of jubilation - truly that stadium’s finest hour (so far).
Barça would continue to attack and despite the natural tendency, as Arsenal fans, to panic, there was a feeling that we knew we had won, and even as they spent the last 5 minutes camped in the penalty area, we knew the victory was ours. Wilshere and Koscielny were the outstanding performers on a night no one in the ground will soon forget. I still have the flags that were given to us on display in my room; despite the injustice that was the second leg (Bussacca, you cheating swine*), you can’t ever take away from the joy, jubilation and sense of triumph that came with reigning victorious over this Barcelona. I returned from the game hoarse and emotionally and physically drained and with a sixth form interview the following day, but that did not stop me from rewatching and reliving the last 90 minutes again. Unforgettable evening.
A rematch and a chance to avenge their 2009 Champions League final defeat for Manchester United; an opportunity to cement three Champions League triumphs in five years for Barcelona. The game is the pinnacle of European football and considering the two teams’ campaigns, it is potentially the best fixture to round what has been an invigorating year of football across Europe.
In footballing terms, United were completely outdone in Rome - the 2-0 scoreline does not suggest a thrashing by any means, but watching the game, the Premier League outfit were outclassed in every area - especially through the centre of midfield. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta ran the show and were instrumental to the Catalans’ triumph. Michael Carrick and Anderson may as well have sat the game out, such was their effect on proceedings as the Spaniards marauded through the centre of the park. It’s common belief that to stop Barcelona, you must stop Xavi and Iniesta - much easier said than done: the sheer number of passes the two put together defies belief. The presence of Darren Fletcher may be integral (if he is deemed fit to play). He was a notable absentee in Rome after receiving a red card in the semi final, he is United’s only defensive midfielder (bar Owen Hargreaves; no need to explain further) and someone guarding the back line could stem the flow of Xavi and Iniesta and also track Lionel Messi’s runs if Guardiola deploys him as a Trequartista.
And what about Messi? While waxing lyrical over the creative masters in the centre of the park, the diminutive Argentine was almost overlooked in their favour as Barcelona’s greatest asset. How can Manchester United stop him? Man marking him will just leave a space that will be exploited by another player. Zonal marking may be of more use, but that means that the mobile Barcelona forward line can attack one area as a unit. A cross of the two marking styles may be in order - with one player elected to stick to Messi in each area of the pitch (i.e. if he’s down the right, Patrice Evra will man mark him there, if through the centre, the job falls to Fletcher, etc.). On the premise that works, which, seeing as I just thought of it, it probably won’t, this deals only with the problem of Messi. David Villa and Pedro together have 39 goals and 19 assists between them this year and they represent massive threats for United.
So far, I’ve only really focussed on Barcelona and on how Manchester United can stifle them, with little consideration of the Mancunian’s potential to dominate the game. That’s because it will be on Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to stop Pep Guardiola’s side - it can be taken as a given that Barcelona will dominate possession and the general proceedings, but there is much that United can learn from Arsenal. When the Catalans faced Arsenal in the second round, they were dangerously close to being knocked out, after having lost in the first leg and been close to an aggregate loss in the Nou Camp (before Robin van Persie’s dismissal). In the first leg, Arsenal were dogged, chasing the ball in the final third but being completely contented with Barcelona keeping it in the middle of the park. They played on the counter attack, but most importantly, they had the visitors in catching distance going into the final 20 minutes, as they began to tire. This has been a common trend when teams play against Barcelona - though it is possible that they will dig deeper with taking the significance of the occasion into account and not allow themselves to slip - but if United are level or only a goal down around the 70 minute mark, the time may come to introduce Chicharito (who looks set to start on the bench) and really have a go at Barcelona.
And the Premier League champions pose a big threat on the counter attack, with the likes of Nani, Rooney and Valencia. This United looks like it will have less naivety then their 2009 counterparts, who tried to beat Barça at their own game. In terms of personnel, this side is much weaker than the one of 2009, but that may mean that they are more suited to fighting Barcelona away. If they line up in a like-for-like 4-3-3, built for counter attacking, they have a better chance. This means leaving out Chicharito and playing Park, Fletcher and Carrick as a midfield three. For all this talk of United’s improvement, one must acknowledge the improvements of Barcelona, too. The likes of Messi, Pedro and Iniesta have all grown as players (though not physically) in the last two years, while they have brought in David Villa who has been prolific over the last few season, the final weeks of the season notwithstanding. Then there is the back four. In Rome, three of Barcelona’s first choice back four were absent, meaning Yaya Touré and Gerard Piqué were the centre-half pairing, with Carles Puyol at right back and an ageing Sylvinho at left back. This year, they look like they will have their first choice back line (Abidal-Puyol-Piqué-Alves), not to mention the developments of Sergio Busquets and Piqué since then, despite both of them having started.
United have a mammoth task on their hands. If they take down this Barcelona team, they will join the pantheon of Manchester United legends, but they must take down possibly the greatest side ever assembled. There is a simple reason why Barcelona are the pre-game favourites: they are a far, far better team. But United definitely have enough about them to win in 90 minute contest. Personally, I am backing Barcelona to win comfortably. I think they will have too much quality for Manchester United, but we’ve all seen Sir Alex pull off miracles - the 1999 final in Barcelona for one. It will make for fascinating viewing.