Blessing of Wenger can be a curse
IF Arsene Wenger needs advice on how to get the best out of a player who wants to leave, he could do worse than break with tradition and enjoy a post-match glass of wine with Alex Ferguson tonight.
Two years ago, Ferguson encountered the problem of effectively having one of his established stars on loan from another club as Real Madrid stopped sniffing around Cristiano Ronaldo for one season only before finally getting their man the following summer.
Ferguson knew the move was inevitable yet still managed to coax 18 league goals in 29 starts from Ronaldo to help them win another league title before Madrid finally coughed up enough money to leave everybody happy.
This season, Cesc Fabregas is essentially a Barcelona player in an Arsenal shirt with an inevitable saga and deal to come in a few months. Yet how much Wenger is able to get out of his captain for the rest of the season will determine if they can end, as Patrice Evra put it, their trophy "crisis".
Unlike last season, Fabregas has been more a punctured tyre than a driving force behind his team, with niggling injuries and a seemingly grumpy mood scarcely contributing to their peculiar rise towards the top of the table and the last 16 of the Champions League.
Having come so close to losing him last summer, Wenger will certainly have made contingency plans and, if he and Ferguson do manage to make it onto a second glass tonight, they could both enjoy a chuckle over the number of players they have seen leave their clubs and go nowhere but downhill.
It seems absurd to believe that Fabregas wouldn't develop into a better player at Barca but, as Wenger acknowledged last month, the number of games he has played in what is still a young career may be taking their toll.
Should he shake off another niggling injury, Fabregas will play his 280th competitive game for Arsenal tonight yet he won't turn 24 until next May. Throw in 58 caps for Spain and it's easy to understand the fear that a 23-year-old approaching 350 professional games might have too many miles on the clock.
For Fabregas, gaining Wenger's permission to leave might help him to sleep easier in his Barcelona bed but, as with Ferguson also, it should force a player to take stock rather than be certain they are heading to better things.
The Premier League and various other championships in Europe are peppered with players developed at Arsenal and United before being sold after they had reached their peak.
When United got rid of Hughes, Kanchelskis and Ince in the mid-90s, many questioned Ferguson's sanity even though he took in £13.5m for the ageing trio. He then introduced, among others, Phil Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt from whom he got an eerily similar number of appearances (263, 265 and 267) and then managed to rake in a combined £31m.
Not one of the six looked anything like the player they did at Old Trafford once they left.
Other than Neville, Beckham and Butt, there's a half-decent starting line-up of 11 players developed at Old Trafford who were unable to make the grade yet still turned in a tidy profit for the club.
Ben Foster, Ryan Shawcross, Phil Bardsley, John Curtis, Danny Higginbotham, Jon Greening, Marc Wilson, Keith Gillespie, Kieran Richardson, David Jones, David Healy scarcely made an impression at Old Trafford other than the £25m their sales put in the bank balance.
Ferguson and Wenger have both made mistakes in buying players -- some understandable (Juan Veron and Jose Reyes), others not (Erik Djemba-Djemba and Francis Jeffers) -- yet their ability to spot the best time to cash in on a player is unparalleled either with aspiring hopefuls or established stars.
In a market that allows Joleon Lescott to be sold for over £20m, Barcelona's offer of £29m for Fabregas was derisory yet it's not surprising when they have had their fingers burned so often in dealing with Wenger in the past.
Not only did he nab Fabregas from the Nou Camp as a teenager, Wenger has also taken over £58m from Barcelona for the combined talents of Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Thierry Henry and Alexander Hleb. With such timing, there must be used-car salesmen with posters of Wenger on their wall.
Isaiah Rankin (£1.3m); Stephen Hughes (£3m); Jason Crowe (£1m); Anthony Stokes (£2m); Seb Larsson (£1m); Fabrice Muamba (£4m); Jeremie Aliadiere (£2m) and Justin Hoyte (£3m) were all let go by Wenger and never missed by the Arsenal supporters.
Those who became big fish in a small pond like David Bentley and Lassana Diarra made some question Wenger's judgment yet neither made an impact once they were asked to take a step up and, in the process of their big switches, Arsenal earned £11m from the two players once their sell-on clause was enacted.
If tonight does prove to be Fabregas' last appearance at Old Trafford in an Arsenal shirt, he will have come a long way since the day he was part of the 'Battle of the Buffet' as a 17-year-old when United ended Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run and Ferguson ended up with pizza on his suit.
Since then, Fabregas has seen good players leave both clubs, but rarely has he seen either Wenger or Ferguson with egg on their faces.