Fabregas' star dimmed by sparkling Spanish cast
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CESC FABREGAS might be the world's most wanted footballer just now, yet his relatively lowly place in the hierarchy of an utterly regal Spanish midfield also remains clear.
Yesterday, Fabregas played his first match since breaking a leg while scoring a penalty against Barcelona back in March in what he now hopes will be his final act as an Arsenal player.
But yesterday was also the World Cup warm-up game that Spain manager Vicente del Bosque had clearly identified as the one in which he would rest most of his first team.
So Fabregas duly took his place in what was effectively the reserve team. And, while he is certainly pushing to replace Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets, Spain were a better team when he was substituted after 57 minutes for the brilliant Xavi.
And, as if to underline their midfield riches, the winning goal -- a wonder strike from 25 yards -- was scored by Jesus Navas Gonzalez, another player on the fringes of the team.
For Fabregas, it was an encouraging enough comeback; he looked physically strong after his nine-week lay-off and fearless in the tackle. There were also some moments of typical creativity, not least when he curled a first-half shot against the crossbar.
Yet, with Arsenal digging their heels in, Barcelona will be asking themselves whether they really should spend upwards of £45m on a player who is still not sure of his international place.
The caveat, of course, is that we are talking about Spain -- the favourites for the World Cup and a team who, in spite of this rather laboured win, are at the absolute peak of their powers.
The tempo is set by Xavi and the rhythm is not dissimilar to that of Barcelona. It is a style that is based very simply on using their wonderful technical skill in possession but then a phenomenal work rate to chase and pressurise opponents on the rare occasions they do lose the ball.
The collective anticipation could hardly be greater. "This is the best team Spain has had in their entire history," said Emilio Butragueno, the former Spain striker. "This is a unique opportunity for Spain to win the World Cup. There has not been a generation of players like this before."
Such confidence is backed up by a truly frightening set of statistics over the past three years. After beating England by an Iniesta goal in February 2007, Spain have gone on a run that now reads: played 47; won 43; drawn three; and lost one. In those games, they have scored 107 goals.
With Fabregas now back and Del Bosque adamant that Fernando Torres will be "perfect" after his knee surgery for the opening group game against Switzerland, the real question is how Spain will cope with the psychological burden of being favourites.
After all, until Euro 2008, they had a history of underachievement in major international tournaments that surpassed even England. It is a situation that requires careful management.
"Being favourites is a terrible trap," said Del Bosque. "There are so many variables, so many factors that can influence the eventual outcome.
"The risk is creating a dichotomy in which you either win the World Cup or you're a failure. It should not be seen as an obligation for us to win the tournament." (© Daily Telegraph, London)