Tuesday 12 December 2017

Fabregas freezes in Nou Camp's harsh spotlight

Jason Burt

It was a moment of madness just when Arsenal needed cool heads not cavaliers. Not quite as stupid as Robin van Persie's sending off, but how Cesc Fabregas will regret his attempt to emulate the skill of Lionel Messi on the stroke of half-time.

The ball ran to the Arsenal captain on the edge of his own penalty area and he tried a back-heel -- or was it a botched 'Cruyff turn' -- and possession was lost. A moment later Messi showed true invention, or was it prestidigation, to whip the ball into the net.

Every thought in Fabregas' head should have been about clearing the ball and re-grouping not doing that. It will hammer away at him now, surely.

How Arsenal needed a big game from their captain. How on his return to Barcelona, to face his team, to play at the Nou Camp for the first time -- bar an appearance for a Catalan Select XI -- Fabregas needed to be the 'leader' for Arsene Wenger.

His hamstring was not a problem, everyone was assured, but Fabregas was inhibited. Inhibited by a lack of possession as the play by-passed him and just inhibited by his environment, returning to play at the club he departed aged just 16 in a move that still rankles with the Catalans who regard his homecoming as inevitable.

Moments before the goal, Fabregas pulled out a challenge as two Barcelona players barrelled towards him to win the ball and that, also, was startling.

Maybe Fabregas' later attempt at an outrageous piece of skill -- was he looking for Jack Wilshere? -- was an attempt for him to gain a foothold in the contest, for despite Arsenal's undoubted effort to fulfil Wenger's commitment to attack, how they struggled. They were simply propelled back and although the statistics showed an emphatic 71pc of possession for Barca it seemed even higher than that.

Rarely can Arsenal have been so swamped and it wasn't just that they lacked the ball, it was how far back they were being pushed by their opponents who have an ability to build pressure almost metronomically. Yellow cards were racking up quickly and it was difficult to see a way out of this unless they tried to gain a greater ration of the ball.

Guardiola had damned Wilshere with faint praise and how Arsenal supporters hoped that it would serve as the ideal Pep talk. This was to be a proving ground for the 19-year-old, inevitably, and he was able to do what he had also promised: to get in the faces of the Barca players. He also urged his team-mates to 'hunt in packs' and they did do that but the absence of the injured Alex Song made the task harder.

"He is lucky because we have many types of player like him in the second team at Barcelona," Guardiola had said which, surely, he did not mean to sound as harsh as it did.

Maybe Guardiola was talking more about Wilshere's age and promise for if he's right then Barca B is surely some team (it is, by the way, riding high in the Spanish Second Division) and what was encouraging was the sight of the Arsenal player demanding the ball early.

There was also more than one brilliant intervention, sliding in to deny Xavi, holding off Messi while also trying to push Arsenal forward.

There was one deft pass in the opening period, picking out Van Persie to spark a rare attack but there was also a yellow card as he paid the price for a poor first touch and overstretched to catch Xavi with his studs up. He was also, at times, isolated as shown when he bravely collected possession inside his own area and ran forward only to push the ball too far ahead of himself.

He was being let down by some of those around him -- Fabregas was eventually withdrawn -- which may appear harsh given the quality Arsenal faced. But such is the quality they aspire to. Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky struggled while Samir Nasri flitted in and out. It was the tallest of orders for Wilshere in front of a battery of watching coaches which included Fabio Capello and the England general manager Franco Baldini.

Wilshere, of course, was the only Englishman among the 36 players on the pitch and bench and maybe that was a sober reflection also on just how much everyone is starting to expect too much from a teenager.

Maybe it wouldn't all matter so much if English football produced more players like Wilshere who was defiant until the end on a difficult, controversial night. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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