Cesc Fabregas: 'They are going mad about it. It's a special game'

Arsenal's Catalan prodigy, Cesc Fabregas, is an authority on Spanish football. He tells Sam Wallace why Chelsea can beat Barcelona and explains the magic of Real Madrid
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The Independent Football

Just another day in the life of a teenage prodigy aged 18 years and 287 days and readying himself to face the most illustrious midfield in the world next week. Fabregas says that he usually watches replays of his games as soon as he returns home but it was 2.30am when he got back to Barnet from Liverpool on Wednesday so he had a sleep before viewing Arsenal's 87th-minute defeat again. Then he switched over and took in Real Madrid's 4-0 thriller against Real Zaragoza - not enough to keep them in the Spanish Cup - and thought about this Tuesday when he will walk out at the Bernabeu for the first time.

Fabregas joined Arsenal in the summer of 2003 aged 16. A Catalan boy sent into the heart of the enemy camp, he has never played a senior game in Spain and he thinks hard when asked what kind of reception he expects in Madrid. "I will be their rival so I will try to win for Arsenal and for myself - and of course they won't say nice things about me but I don't think they will treat me like a Barcelona fan," he says. And then he remembers what he has been reading lately and grins. "There has been a lot of talk about they [Real] wanting to sign me," he adds, "so probably it won't be so bad."

It is hard to believe that this young man is actually one of the Premiership's longest-serving Spanish contingent. He was here before Jose Antonio Reyes and Rafael Benitez and he predates Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, his fellow Catalan who finally broke Arsenal's resistance at Anfield on Tuesday. The two players are friends and both left Barcelona to come to England. "Luis, he's a really nice guy," says Fabregas, "although not yesterday, then he was not a nice guy."

Talk to Fabregas and it is easy to see why the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, was so impressed when he first met this bright, young footballer more than three years ago, around the time the then 16-year-old was named the best player in the Under-17 World Cup. Intelligent, and with more opinions on the game than you would usually find in a whole squad of teenage footballers, Fabregas has made his specialist subject Spanish football, whose two greatest sides will face Arsenal and Chelsea in the Champions' League this coming week.

Like the Junior Gunners' devotion to Arsenal, Fabregas' association with Barcelona dates back to his first visit to the Nou Camp aged nine months with his grandfather, Alex. His grandfather, father, uncle and even Fabregas himself are season-ticket holders at the Nou Camp - "I just loan mine out now," he says - and they will all be there, with the exception of the prodigal son, when Chelsea come to play their second-leg match on 7 March.

The latest in a great line of Barcelona playmakers - Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Andres Iniesta - Fabregas may have left Spain in search of first-team football but he has never stopped watching Barcelona on television and devouring their news in the Spanish newspapers. He watched their 1-0 defeat away to second-placed Valencia on Sunday and, ahead of Barcelona's visit to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Fabregas is one proud Catalan who fears the worst.

"If you are a big team, you are a big team in all respects," Fabregas says. "If the key players are injured there is someone to replace him. At Barcelona it looks like if they don't have the right player then the second [choice] player doesn't do so well. Of course it's Ronaldinho [suspended in La Liga] and if you play with him every week you will get good results - if he doesn't play there is a big difference.

"When there are two or three players who don't play you can feel the difference. When Carles Puyol didn't play against Zaragoza, they lost 4-2; when Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho didn't play against Atletico Madrid they lost 3-1; when Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi didn't play against Valencia - but Eto'o was back - they lost 1-0.

"That's why I feel at the moment Chelsea have more replacements. If there is no Damien Duff, there is Arjen Robben; if there is no Joe Cole there is Shaun Wright-Phillips. If there is no Frank Lampard, Maniche. They have Carvalho, Gallas, Del Horno. There are so many good players in that team. If Barcelona have all their players against Chelsea, they have a lot of options to beat them but if not I think Chelsea have a very good chance to beat them."

When it comes to Fabregas against Real Madrid, he says that his friends back in Barcelona are going "mad about that game". "When they talk to me on MSN Messenger they are just saying, 'Come on, beat them, beat them'. They are going mad about it. It's going to be just one more game, but a big game, a special game because Real Madrid - you don't play against them every day."

The Spanish newspapers have hinted of late at an interest in Fabregas from Real and it would be difficult to overstate the importance of Tuesday's match to the 18-year-old's chances of making Spain's World Cup squad. Uncapped by the senior team he is in a queue behind Alonso and Xavi, as well as the formidable Valencia pair of David Albelda and Ruben Baraja, for a central midfield place. But for any Spanish kid, regardless of where they are from, playing at the Bernabeu is an essential rite of passage.

"When people speak about Real Madrid, even if they know they won so many things, nine European Cups, they don't realise just how big they are," he says. "I know because I am Spanish and I still read all the newspapers in Spain. There they are just massive. If there is a team then Real Madrid are God. Even when Real Madrid are not at their best.

"Against Real Zaragoza it was fantastic. They had to win 5-0 and no one thought they could do it. They were 4-0 up after 60 minutes. It means when they want to play well they can do it. They have some of the best footballers in the world - Zidane, Ronaldo, now Cicinho who is playing really well, Woodgate, Raul is back. You know that at some stage of the game they can make the difference or do something special. We all know that and we have to be careful."

The roll call of galacticos that he will face on Tuesday is a sober reminder of the task for an Arsenal team that has been gripped by injuries and now undermined by a record of just one win in five Premiership games and elimination from the Carling Cup and FA Cup. They go to Spain with at least five senior players out injured, although Gaël Clichy may yet return in time to give the side a specialist left-back, and with the misery of that Garcia goal against Arsenal on Tuesday night.

"It's always difficult to find what's wrong with the team and who was responsible," Fabregas said. "It is also difficult when a team play long balls against you all the time. And every game is getting more like that. I don't know if it's good for the fans to watch these kind of games because it looks like it's a boring game. This morning when I was watching the game I was falling asleep again.

"I think also the attitude. We had a good attitude but maybe not enough to win the game. I think a draw was the best result [against Liverpool]. Yeah, they create shots but from 60 yards, 30 yards all the time. You can score a great goal but you can shoot every time from the middle of the park and [most of the time] you won't have a chance. Luis Garcia was a bit more tricky than us, a bit more intelligent. He was already there to score the goal. But we created good chances as well."

For those who witnessed the defeat to Liverpool, Fabregas's performance was one of the few positive elements in a match in which Arsenal's more senior players - Thierry Henry, Gilberto Silva, Robert Pires - struggled to exert an influence. When it comes to his own performance, and his development at Arsenal, Fabregas is insistent that he is making serious progress in his second season after a spectacular breakthrough to feature in 46 games the previous campaign.

He compares his situation now to that of Xavi, the Barcelona midfielder currently injured, who came in for criticism when his club were struggling four years ago but now, according to Fabregas is "the best midfielder in Spain, one of the best in Europe".

"If I look at the games that I played last season at Bolton or Liverpool and compare them to this season, I can see a very big difference physically - especially physically," he says. "The other day against Bolton I had the best performance physically since I was at Arsenal so it means I am improving every game. Maybe when things are not going well they blame you because you are young.

"I am working hard and I want to be the best one day. I think the attitude is right in all respects. I have heard a few times now that I am not the same player as last year. Maybe the person who writes that thinks that but when I read it... I think that maybe this guy doesn't know anything about football."

"Definitely I won't be the same if we are not in the Champions' League [next season] but there are 12 games to go and only four points [behind Tottenham]. Last season I remember we were third and Manchester United were second yet we secured second with two games to spare. That's football. You can have a bad month, you go from second to fourth, and the next week you are the worst. I accept that."

Fabregas is equally vehement about how Arsenal have coped after the departure of their captain to Juventus in the summer - "if people think that I am going to be the next Patrick Vieira they are totally wrong" - and is mystified that the same fate has befallen the 19-year-old Abu Diaby, signed from Auxerre in January. "You cannot say, 'Oh, Diaby the new Vieira, [Emmanuel] Adebayor the new Kanu, Theo Walcott the new Henry'. Maybe they will be in the future, but you cannot tell them now they will be the next guys."

"It doesn't help because when you are a fan, you read this and you believe it. They say 'he is the new Patrick Vieira' and maybe he has a bad game and that's it. At the moment I think Abu, Adebayor are fantastic players. They are showing that right now and in the future they will show it even more. They need time, we all need time, to focus to get better and stronger. I believe we can get into the next round of the Champions' League and higher in the League."

For one so young he is impressively sure of what is required of him, and what it will take to get a result in Madrid on Tuesday. There he will also encounter David Beckham, a player he says he only came to know about four years ago when he was pointed out in a magazine by a fellow Barcelona youth player - "one of my friends said, 'Look at this guy, he dresses so well'." This week will show that La Liga and the Premiership are closer than ever and nowhere more than in the contest between our England captain and their best young midfield prospect. Both playing against teams from their native country.

"I was lucky to come here so young because if you want to be the most complete player in the world then you have to come to the Premier League," Fabregas says. "When you are 26, 27, it is a bit too late. You can be the best doing tricks, attacking, going forward like Ronaldinho does and he is the best in the world but he is not the most complete player because he does not defend.

"In England I think it's the most competitive - technically, tactically, physically. They just told me when I came here, 'OK, we signed you because you are good technically, but if you don't defend you cannot play for Arsenal'. That's why I had to achieve that and I showed the manager I could do it. That's why he played me because basically if not I wouldn't be playing. You have to believe in yourself. When they told me that, I believed I could do it."

He finishes outlining his football philosophy with a phrase that might have come straight from the mind of Arsène Wenger - "It cannot be that one is running and one is walking," Fabregas says, "we all have to run for the ball." Come Tuesday evening, it will be a Spanish prodigy that the Bernabeu welcomes on to the pitch, but a Spanish prodigy educated in all the best English traditions.

Exchange of skills: Britain's football trade with Spain

* BRITS IN SPAIN - Hits

Gary Lineker, Barcelona

Signed by Terry Venables for £2.75m. He became an instant hit, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Real Madrid.

Steve McManaman, Real Madrid

Signed in 1999 under the Bosman ruling, he won the European Cup - scoring in a 3-0 victory over Valencia in Paris.

* BRITS IN SPAIN - Misses

Mark Hughes, Barcelona

The striker moved in 1986, but could not settle in his new surroundings. He scored four goals in 28 games.

Michael Owen, Real Madrid

Criticised for a poor first touch, he usually started on the bench and left for Newcastle after a year and 13 goals in 36 games.

* SPANIARDS HERE - Hits

Xabi Alonso, Liverpool

A £10.5m bargain. His smooth passing, capable shooting and defensive support has allowed Steven Gerrard to flourish.

Roberto Martinez, Wigan

Signed in 1995, his silky skills made him a Latics legend. The first Spaniard to score in the FA Cup, he made 226 appearances.

* SPANIARDS HERE - Misses

Javier De Pedro, Blackburn

A winger with 20 caps for Spain, he left for Perugia on a free transfer after only three appearances in a year.

Fernando Morientes, Liverpool

Arrived as one of Europe's best strikers. Prolific at Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid and Monaco, he has nine goals in 41 games so far.

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