Arsenal's Spanish midfielder declares himself fit and ready to face his hometown club
An elaborate route brings Cesc Fábregas to a place he has always known. He declares himself recovered from a hamstring injury and will take the field against Barcelona for the away leg of Arsenal's tie in the first knockout round of the Champions League, where the visitors hold a 2-1 lead. The midfielder was born close to the city and would surely have been on the pitch at the Camp Nou by now had he not preferred, as a 16-year-old, to switch to Arsène Wenger's youth system in London.
Last year, he was absent through injury from the away leg in the quarter-final with these same opponents when a 4-1 beating, with all the Barcelona goals notched by Lionel Messi, followed a 2-2 draw at the Emirates. Despite his effort to take a matter-of-fact approach to this year's encounter the stress was evident.
"I am not here to shut [people up] or beat anyone specifically," he insisted. "I'm just here to win for Arsenal FC. Sometimes I don't understand these comments. I don't put anything extra in my head because I am playing in the Camp Nou. It's just one more game. I'm fed up of people saying what I feel because they don't know what I feel."
Fábregas brushed away the notion of any treachery in walking away from Barcelona and preferred to emphasise the strength he drew from his family. "They're always going to support me in everything I do," he said. "I'm really happy to be able to play here again."
Wenger acknowledged that Fábregas retains a bond with Tuesday's opponents. "We know that Cesc loves this club [Arsenal] and that he loves Barcelona as well," said the manager, who rejected a £33m offer for the midfielder from the Catalan club last summer. "He has both. It's normal because it's his hometown. It's like a Londoner not to love London. It is part of his life."
Last season Fábregas had been hurt in the first match, when brought down by Carles Puyol, who was sent off. The midfielder dispatched the penalty while oblivious to the fact that the centre-half's foul had cracked his right fibula. Although Fábregas's recovery only got him as far as a substitute's role at the 2010 World Cup it was still his pass that paved the way for the Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta to notch the winner in the final.
Fábregas had already taken the Euro 2008 trophy with his country. There is a tenacity to complement the technique. His father might have pointed to the better prospects of getting into the first team at Arsenal, but only the adolescent Fábregas could supply the commitment to make such a success of the switch to a country with a different culture in football and beyond. The whole exercise was nicely gauged, with the youngster learning from Patrick Vieira for two years, without being lost in the shadow of a man who left for Juventus in 2005.
That year also saw Fábregas collect his sole honour to date with Arsenal, the FA Cup. The lack of club trophies would make a return to Barcelona intriguing to a footballer, even if there were no boyhood link to the La Liga club. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to ignore just how much Arsenal have done for the midfielder. His game has been refined and extended in a fashion that was not guaranteed to have occurred anywhere else.
If there is any notion at all of relocating to the Camp Nou, Fábregas is disciplined of maintaining privacy. For Barcelona, the topic seems to constitute a grievance. More accurately, the choice of someone with the midfielder's accomplishment to walk was taken as an affront. When the current manager, Pep Guardiola, talked of Arsenal's Jack Wilshere and, with no harm intended, classified him as the type who might get stuck in the Barcelona second string, he illustrated why someone like Fábregas might want to head for new territory.
Arsenal have developed him well. Fábregas would have first been viewed as an exquisite passer of the ball who could give a match its tempo and shape. All of that is undoubtedly within his scope, but Wenger saw the other facets that made him a threat of a different sort last season. In a more advanced role Fábregas could cause direct harm to the opposition, scoring 15 goals in the Premier League despite being limited to 26 starts. There were also 16 assists in those outings. If that impact has not been sustained, the blame can be placed on post-World Cup anti-climax and the hamstring concerns that have recurred in the past year or two. Regardless of that, Fábregas has sustained as much fluency and expertise as could be expected when he, like his club, has endured repeated blows.
He must be a little surprised, as well as gratified, to see Arsenal in good order ahead of this encounter with Barcelona. This is, a side that can draw at Newcastle after amassing a 4-0 lead, lose three Premier League games at the Emirates and fall to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final, yet still have a credible prospect of becoming champions of England, no matter what becomes of them in the Camp Nou. After all, the Premier League leaders Manchester United were brittle in the loss to Liverpool.