Fabregas key as Gunners bid to topple Barca
BARCELONA almost lost a game on Saturday night. And, if you think they looked good when they beat Real Madrid 5-0 in December, you should have seen them when they were a goal down against Sporting Gijon with 15 minutes to play.
For Gijon, who took the lead in the first half and ended Barcelona's 16-game winning streak with a 1-1 draw, the closing stages were, to put it mildly, an intense experience.
Gijon repelled one Barca attack only for another to materialise immediately. It was, as football reporters of yesteryear used to write, like the Alamo. But this was the Alamo in 3D -- with James Cameron directing.
Barcelona are a wonderful team and when they line up at the Emirates on Wednesday, they will probably have seven players in their first XI who were nurtured by the club's legendary youth system.
Not only that, but Barcelona can also claim to have developed the best player on the opposition side too, that Catalan-in-exile Cesc Fabregas.
The Arsenal captain is facing a game that could elevate him to a whole new level as a footballer.
If you had to look around the Premier League for the best player this season, you would look no further than the Spain midfielder. His technique is superb and he is the epitome of everything you want in a player from the technical standpoint.
Whenever he has the ball, he always has the time and space to pick out three or four options and he does it seamlessly. His play is like poetry at times.
But to be the best in the world, you have to do it against the best teams and that is the challenge now facing Fabregas.
Let's not forget that he is still only 23 so is just a kid really, but he now has the chance to emulate the likes of Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard by driving his team on against the very best in the biggest competition.
He also has the added motivation of doing it against Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the two guys who have kept him out of the Spain team.
Yes, there have been flashes of petulance such as the recent clash with Everton manager David Moyes, but every great player has had a bit of needle in him. Top-level football is no place for Mr Nice Guy.
Even Ryan Giggs, who portrays that Nice Guy image at Manchester United, is as tough as they come. He proved that by cutting Lee Bowyer in half with a challenge during a game at Birmingham in December, but Giggs has the benefit of the experience and maturity that Fabregas will gain with time.
And for all the talk about Fabregas wanting out to play for Barcelona, you cannot play as well as he has this season if you want to be somewhere else.
Modern players go if they want to but, despite the Barcelona speculation last summer, Fabregas stayed and the Arsenal fans love him for it.
These days everyone wants their club to be like Barcelona. They want the youth team kids who become superstars; they want the virtuoso football; they want the ownership model of fans as shareholders. They want the charity shirt sponsorship (albeit discontinued this summer). They want the home-grown coach and his success.
Barcelona are the foremost team of this generation and they pretty much won the World Cup for Spain last year with a bit of help from three Real Madrid players and the Villarreal left-back.
But they are not unbeatable and Arsenal are one of the best qualified teams to remember that, on Wednesday, they have to play the 11 men on the pitch -- not their reputation.
Although it is a tough case to make, Arsenal have a better chance than most of overcoming Barcelona over two legs in the Champions League. They have encountered Barca at close quarters before and have no reason to stand in the tunnel wide-eyed when their opponents emerge from the away dressing-room, superstar by superstar.
It should be remembered, too, that in the 4-1 defeat Arsene Wenger's team endured at the Nou Camp last season Arsenal had no Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Andrei Arshavin or Alex Song. Pitting Mikael Silvestre against Messi was Wenger's last resort and it turned out to be a disaster for Arsenal.
Arsenal might have fewer injuries this time but there are also reasons to fear for them. The doubts about their central defensive pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou persist and the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is inexperienced. But if Samir Nasri is fit to play, and they can win at the Emirates, then it is not impossible to see them getting through at the Nou Camp on March 8.
Not since his return from rupturing his ligaments in that Holland friendly in November 2009 has Van Persie played so well -- and consistently -- as he is now.
There will be no Carles Puyol on Wednesday and that will mean shuffling Eric Abidal over from left-back to cover. On Saturday night, Gerard Pique did not look as composed, and more seasoned Barca observers put that down to the absence of Puyol.
Which brings us back to Sporting Gijon whose point earned against Barcelona on Saturday night is all the more impressive for their relative impoverishment.
While Gijon's nerve eventually faltered, they showed Arsenal a brief glimpse of Barcelona's vulnerability.
On Wednesday, we can expect Arsenal to be braver, bolder and to play the team rather than the invincible football behemoth some would have us believe in. (© Independent News Service)