The playmaker's performance gave a vision of Barça's future – something that will not have gone unnoticed at Old Trafford
Cesc Fábregas's midfield masterclass on Tuesday evening against Manchester City illustrated why Manchester United covet him and why Xavi Hernández's retirement – when it comes – should not concern Barcelona.
It was a night when David Moyes was reminded of how differing the champions' fortunes might have been in the Scot's inaugural season as managerif he had prised Fábregas away to become the driving force of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson United.
The display of high-energy playmaking had Fábregas gliding past blue shirts, zipping in and out of space, and finding angles for passes that ensured Manuel Pellegrini's men were continually pinned back.
In a hypnotic opening to the Champions League tieat the Etihad Stadium, Barça annexed City territory, with Fábregas orchestrating attack after attack that threatened to win the game before 30 minutes were played.
With this pivotal performance Fábregas continued a season of redemption after last year's disappointing campaign. A summer of soul-searching followed that prompted serious debate over whether to leave his boyhood club for United, who, reading the runes, believed they had a genuine chance of landing him.
The build-up to the Champions last-16 opening leg between the Catalan giants and the world's richest club barely mentioned Fábregas. The pre-match debate centred on just how good Lionel Messi remained, if Barcelona were a shadow of the great Pep Guardiola team, and how Pellegrini might set his XI up.Fábregas, who left Arsenal for Barça in summer 2011 for £35m, arrived in Manchester with the glow of a man who felt loved, at last. Before the meeting with City, he talked of his renaissance at Camp Nou. "I'm playing every week and I feel very important to the team. I'm very happy right now," he said. "This season I have felt more like myself, with more freedom and more secure with the way I like to play. It's not easy when you know you have to convince many fans how good you are and how good you can be for the team.
"The manager has trusted me and given me what I needed. I'm probably going through my best spell here."
Against City, Fábregas completed 98 of 106 passes, a 92.5% success rate. The heat map of the 86 minutes during which he decorated the contest offers a telling view of how he ran proceedings, his passes sprayed all over the Etihad turf in kaleidoscopic fashion.
Gerardo Martino, the Barcelona coach, opted to leave out a forward, with Pedro on the bench. After the victory the Argentinian explained why an extra midfielder had been desired: "Obviously it was different. When we play with three strikers we are much faster and with one more midfielder we have more possession."
For this strategy to work the hope was that his gun midfielders,Xavi and Fábregas would utilise their passing game in incisive fashionto ensure this was not a mere ball-hogging exercise. Possession should be used to launch the killer move that would yield a goal. The attack that turned the game – and tie – came due to the relentless pressure City were put under throughout.
This dominance was led by Fábregas, who continually dropped back to take the ball and start the next Barça wave.
On 53 minutes Iniesta flicked a slick pass into Messi and the sluggish Martín Demichelis lunged at his compatriot. Jonas Eriksson, the referee, adjudged the challenge a penalty and a sending-off offence. After Demichelis departed, Messi slotted the spot-kick and that was 1-0 with City down to 10 men for the closing 35 minutes.Last summer Moyes identified Fábregas as his prime target. Despite the £27m arrivals of Marouane Fellaini on 31 August and Juan Mata for a club record £37.1m in January, the 26-year-old remains the ideal buy for United, who still hanker for a central midfielder who can bully elite opposition.
With Fábregas having struggled to establish himself in Guardiola's team last season – the 2011-12 campaign – and last term under his successor, Tito Vilanova, he was conscious that he had arrived at a career crossroad. The word went from the Fábregas camp to United that he would seriously contemplate a move. to Old Trafford
This drove the champions' ploy to make their interest public, as their information was that if Barcelona came under pressure from a serious suitor they would show how much they really valued Fábregas. It provoked Martino into telling the club website: "I would prefer him to stay with us and I dare say he will, but it's his decision. He is one of the best players in the squad. I think he will stay. But there's a part that he has to decide. Cesc will decide the situation, but it has not occurred to me that I won't be able to count on him."
United's strategic gamble worked in drawing Barça out. But it backfired as Fábregas, when it came to it, decided he could not countenance leaving unless the club told him he was unwanted.
If Moyes had upped United's offer to £40m this would have caused a serious test of the executive's resolve to keep Fábregas. Instead, Moyes turned his attention to Fellaini and United supporters still wonder how a faltering title defence that has left the club 11 points from a Champions League berth might have differed.
Arsenal's £35m valuation of Fábregas now appears a bargain. This year there have been eight goals in 20 La Liga starts. Mesut Özil, who cost the Gunners £42.5m, has managed four in 21 Premier League starts.
Fábregas was off the field – his work done – when Dani Alves scored the Barça second that makes them firm favourites to reach the quarter-finals on 12 March. Martino added: "I am happy with the result after the first 90 minutes, I say that because the game lasts 180 minutes. The second part we will try and play as if it is 0-0." Then, Fábregas hopes to shine and show why he is Xavi's heirthe natural heir to Xavi as the heartbeat of the four-times European champions.