The big fish in a big pond
Four years after they met in the Champions League final in Paris, Barcelona and Arsenal go head to head again tonight. Barca triumphed in the French capital and are favourites in this Champions League quarter-final tie, but their respect for Arsenal is genuine, not least because the Gunners' captain is a former Barca starlet schooled in their famed cantera youth system.
Cesc Fabregas's heart is in Catalonia and his head in London. A born and bred cule from a small coastal town 40 miles north of Barcelona, he was part of Barca's "Class of '87" - a group of youngsters born in that year who came through the youth ranks at Camp Nou and beat everybody in their path. In 2001-02, Barca's youth side, managed by Tito Vilanova, Pep Guardiola's assistant, won every competition they entered.
Remembered as the club's greatest ever youth team, Fabregas's teammates included Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique. Fabregas, aged 16, was snared by Arsenal, Pique by Manchester United. Their transfers outraged Barca, but English clubs were allowed to offer professional contracts to players a year earlier than in Spain, with both citing a higher probability of first-team football in England than at Barcelona. Fabregas was right, Pique wrong - although he has since proved his quality after returning to Barca in 2008.
Among the players ahead of Fabregas were Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Speaking in 2001 when he was still at Barca, Fabregas said: "I pay special attention to the way Guardiola moves because he plays in the same position as me and he's been here for many years. "I focus on how he raises his head before passing the ball and the speed with which he does it. I also look at Xavi, who is one of the players who, I suppose, will take over from Guardiola when he goes. And Andres Iniesta is another player I think will go a long way in football - he's special."
Fabregas was right on all three counts. But he himself has become transfer target No 1 for Barcelona this summer. Joan Laporta, the outgoing club president, wants to deliver the signing of Fabregas as the final act of his legacy before the June elections. Fabregas has downplayed the move, stating merely that he would like to play for Barca at some point in the future. Arsenal's captain, 22, received a knock to his knee during Saturday's Premier League game with Birmingham City and missed training yesterday. However, the London club will put him through a late fitness test today before deciding whether he is fit enough to take part tonight.
With 18 goals to his name this season, the Catalan is Arsenal's main creative force. He is the big fish in a big pond, a status which would diminish if he moved to Barca, as Thierry Henry found out when he switched clubs in 2007. Henry took a season to adjust to not being the main man, to being played out of position and not taking set pieces. He maintains that he was always happiest at Arsenal. If Fabregas appears reluctant to push himself forward then it is understandable.
Although unquestionably talented, the competition for places in Barca's first team remains. Xavi and Iniesta are still there and have matured to be the best centre-midfield pairing in the world. Where would Fabregas fit in? One professional footballer, who has played against both, told us: "Cesc wouldn't get in Barca's team. He's technically good, neat and tidy and has a low centre of gravity. He can go either way with the ball, but he's not quick enough for Barca. He doesn't use his body as intelligently, nor does he shine in the biggest matches like Xavi, who could make the difference at any club in the world. If he had five men around him, he still would not lose the ball."
Aesthetically, Barca and Arsenal are the best two passing sides in football, but Barca are more direct and technically superior. Could Fabregas compete at that level? He will certainly be going all out to show Barca that he can. @Email:email@example.com Arsenal v Barcelona, 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +3 & +4
Published: March 31, 2010 04:00 AM