Picture it now and it’s difficult to understand how it has happened: a player, playing for a team that he loves, leaves to join the side that he grew up playing for, the only other love in his footballing life. From there, problems occurred, and he had to move on. Who signed him? Only the manager who least symbolises the footballing philosophies of either side that he previously played for, in charge of one of his former club’s greatest rivals.
Cesc Fàbregas will stride out into a stadium on Sunday, wearing a shirt that no one could have pictured him in even a few months ago. He will also emerge from the tunnel as one of the most impressive players thus far in the still young Premier League season.
Chelsea win 13/20
Arsenal win 17/4
(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)
The Spain international has been on fire since joining Chelsea, announced his return to the English game in spectacular fashion, laying on a stunning ball for World Cup winner Andre Schürrle to aid Chelsea in their 3-1 defeat of Burnley. Since then, he’s performed consistently brilliantly.
While he has not yet scored for the Blues in the Premier League, he has provided six assists in his first six games for the Stamford Bridge club. Combining in tandem with the similarly sensational Diego Costa, the former Barcelona man has been a key player as Chelsea have stormed to the top of the table.
It seems lazy to focus on Fàbregas when he’s set to face Arsenal, like the sort of thing that anyone previewing the game could do, but the truth is that he represents one of the greatest threats to his former club in Sunday’s clash.
When Arsenal travelled to west London last season, they lost the midfield battle horribly, with their problems in the centre of the park contributing to a huge 6-0 defeat. Since then, Chelsea have only improved their options, with Nemanja Matić continuing his excellent form from the last campaign and the Brazilian Oscar improving his displays.
The addition of Fàbregas to the midfield mix seems to have freed the 23-year-old, who struggled somewhat under the huge creative onus placed upon him by Mourinho last season. Chelsea now possess two seriously dangerous threats in the centre of the park, with Matic also more than a simple bruiser sitting in a deep role.
On the other hand, Arsenal have struggled to put together a consistently impressive unit in the middle this season. Aaron Ramsey has been sublime at times, as he was in the first half of last season, but he will not be available for Sunday’s tie. Jack Wilshere has taken to chasing his own past-ghost around the future-pitch, never quite catching up with his own potential, although he has trained ahead of the tie. Mathieu Flamini, a revelation at the start of the last campaign, simply because he was an actual holding midfielder, is being caught up by his age. Mikel Arteta offers a hypothetical shield, but not a particularly effective actual one.
Arsene Wenger’s options are so limited in midfield, in terms of being able to stop an opponent, that he might turn to the apparently fit again Abou Diaby, although the Frenchman could spontaneously combust at any time between now and Sunday and no one would be particularly surprised.
It was never meant to be like this – in 2007, Arsenal climbed back to the top of the Premier League by beating Chelsea 1-0 at home, with a duo of Flamini and Fabregas performing outstandingly in the middle of the park.
The two ex-partners now face off, one a symbol of weakness and the other a symbol of strength.
Wenger also seems undecided on how to line his side up in the middle of the park, and probably needs to stick to the 4-2-3-1 that suits his players best ahead of this game. With Ramsey out injured, he needs to get Mesut Ozil into a central role where, as he proved against Aston Villa two weekends ago, he can conduct an attacking masterclass. If he is, as he was in the early part of the season, shunted out onto the left hand side, it is a waste of his talent and makes Arsenal all the easier to break down.
Aside from the potential for a midfield issue for the Gunners, the other most interesting duel will probably be between Diego Costa and Arsenal’s preferred defensive duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. The pairing have been repeatedly called one of the best in the league, although neither is particularly built for an out-and-out physical battle, which Costa offers.
There were immediate jokes about the potential for Didier Drogba to strike against Arsenal when he returned to Chelsea, with the Ivorian having held something of a hoodoo over the north London club, but Costa is like Drogba turned up to 11. If Wenger hasn’t adjusted his mindset when it comes to choosing defenders, Costa could plunder like his veteran teammate did in the past. The only plus point for Arsenal is that there remain doubts about the Spain international’s fitness, given his excursions in midweek against Sporting Lisbon and the consistent problems with his hamstring.
At the other end of the pitch, Danny Welbeck offers an interesting proposition for John Terry and Gary Cahill. While the English duo have demonstrated a good understanding, neither is particularly blessed with pace, and if Welbeck can exploit that, Arsenal could receive some joy.
The simple reality is that Chelsea should go into this game feeling confident, armed with threats across the pitch (I’ve not even mentioned Eden Hazard, for example), their best players available to them and on good form. It would be no surprise to see Fabregas play the orchestrator in the middle of the park either, reminding his former fans why they still, in the main, hold him in the highest regard.
Arsenal have been decent, but have not looked fluid at any point this season. As they say though, the form book goes out of the window in a derby tie, and if Arsenal can click at Stamford Bridge, it could have huge effect on the course of their season.
Betting Instinct tip – Another 6-0 win seems unlikely, but Chelsea to win by 2 or more goals is 8/5 with Intertops.eu
AMITAI WINEHOUSE has written for lots of cool places including The Yorkshire Evening Post and The Square Ball, and is currently studying how to write for places like this one, which seems a bit backwards really. Follow him on Twitter.