"IT'S LIKE RAAIIIN ON YOUR WEDDDING DAY, WHEN CESC FABREGASSS GIVESSS THE BALLL AWAYYY!" would have been the chants at Camp Nou if they sang in English and had a particular taste for Alanis Morissette. The Catalans did not get to see Fabregas play in the shirt they've begged for him to wear since last year, yet with one botched backheel he gifted Barcelona the goal they needed to shift momentum in the tie.
Well, perhaps that is a harsh assessment given the circumstances. Barcelona were racking pressure on Arsenal in a manner that even surpassed the 4-1 drubbing they delivered upon them in the same ground last year. Messi was the main culprit that time around, whereas on this day the entire Barcelona team lived up to a smothering pressing style which has now become eponymous with the side. With swarms of blau-grana shirts homing in on wherever the ball might be with an unmistakable clairvoyance, it was only a matter of time before Arsenal would forfeit their last breath of hope. But if Arsenal's hopes were to expire no Gunner would have wished that they expired on the feet of their illustrious captain, a player whom Jaume Marcet, a reporter for Barca during Fabregas's youth days, remembers others pointing to and saying, "Watch Francesc Fabregas. He does not make a single mistake." A player whom Arsenal have relied on being the coordinator of their passing game, the fulcrum between their lines.
So just how did one of football's most reliable heroes end up suffering possibly the most miserable night of his career? Moments after the match Michael Cox of Zonal Marking noted that, "Fabregas is far from a stupid player, but Barcelona were pressuring so much that he felt he had to do something ‘clever’ merely to complete a pass on the edge of his own penalty area." Indeed Fabregas was shaken by the brunt of Barcelona's attack as was the entire Arsenal squad. Wenger had changed the shape and selection of his team from the 4-1 lesson they'd suffered, opting for two holding midfielders and replacing "Bambi on Ice" Denilson with the more decisive Wilshere, but even then there was never any confusion as to which team was dominating. Wenger had finally gained the defensive nous and practicality many have clamored for in his tactics, but Arsenal's counterattacking threat was absent without the pacy Theo Walcott. The injured pair of Van Persie and Fabregas were only on half-steam and unable to capitalize on the fleeting moments when Arsenal did have the ball. Indeed Fabregas's hamstring immobilized him just as much as Barca's pressing, and having to cover for Arsenal's defenders all over the pitch did not help him divert stress away from it. Throughout the match one could find him having to help out on the flanks or dribble around his own area with a hobble too painful not to notice.
But returning to the backheel in question, it was more of a mental lapse than a physical breakdown, and Barcelona would not score again until they were awarded a one man advantage. If Fabregas did feel that he had to try something extravagant to get any sort of grip on the match, it would explain his plain admission afterwards: "I take full blame for the result tonight. One of the worst moments of my life. I apologise." Fabregas is certainly the kind of player whose decisions must haunt him more than anything. He has played with countless injuries before, but in tonight's match he faced what I must imagine to be one of the most mentally exhausting experiences a footballer can have. Splitting his time trying to spot a pass that never materialized and trying to diffuse tensions in an usually testy match between the two clubs (the fracas after a harsh foul on Wilshere from Dani Alves was a particularly revealing moment, with Fabregas the only player trying to moderate with his national teammates on Arsenal's behalf), it was certainly not the homecoming any player would have wanted. To be blunt, it was a nightmare. The beloved son of both Arsenal and Barcelona was now caught in a bad-blood battle between them when he never should have been on the pitch in the first place.
At the moment Fabregas did not seem to desire playing for either team. Certainly the days when he used to play with current Barça players Messi and Pique, taking joy in trouncing opposing youth teams 6-0, 7-0 on a regular basis were long gone, albeit by a decision he'd made 8 years ago. But Fabregas's move to Arsenal was not out of greed or fame. One must remember that elegant passers such as Fabregas were quickly turning obsolete over the turn of the century, and a move to England is one many Spanish players aspire for due to the lure of a new footballing experience and an opportunity to toughen up. Marcet said, "When Cesc left there was a feeling that maybe he was doing the right thing. It would be hard to break into the side with Iniesta and Xavi playing in his position. I'm sure he kept in touch with Pique and maybe that influenced Pique's decision to go to England." Certainly in the 2006 Champions League Final Fabregas must have felt justified in his move when he started while Xavi and Iniesta were relegated to the bench. Arsenal lost the match, but back then their star was rising. Now it seems increasingly resigned to disappointment.
But the reason all of this must be torturing Fabregas isn't simply because of the misery in his team's fortunes. As I wagered earlier, I would say that Fabregas is a player who spends more time being self-critical (rather the opposite of the papers which deride Arsenal on a daily basis) than anything. His transfer saga has teetered both ways. On some days you'll find him oozing respect for Guardiola saying, "Without him, I don't know if I would be a professional footballer today. I owe him a lot and I have a special affection for him." And on other days you'll find him obeying Wenger as if he were his father saying, "I respect him so much. He told me to concentrate on my football and the World Cup and he will deal with whatever happens in my future." The last quote is probably the most revealing. Fabregas would much rather choose to concentrate on how he's playing than where he is, but on a fateful night in Barcelona he's had to think about both.