Manchester City v Barcelona: Cesc Fabregas thriving for Gerardo Martino's class of '87 following difficult spell after switch from Arsenal
He has played in 36 of Barcelona's 40 competitive matches this season - starting 31 of them
Tuesday 18 February 2014
"For every bad game I have, 10 good ones are wiped out," a forlorn Cesc Fabregas said last season as he struggled to play his way back into the hearts of Barcelona supporters.
There had been jeers for him against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, with Spain hockey player Edi Tibau briefly making a name for himself by tweeting: "Cesc, seriously, it's minute 65 and you still haven't started running?" The homecoming had gone horribly wrong.
David Moyes sensed an opening and offered Fabregas the opportunity to call it quits and return to the Premier League to link up with Robin van Persie once more, but he stayed and on Tuesday makes a belated arrival in Manchester, still playing for Barcelona and with 13 goals and 16 assists so far this season.
He has played in 36 of Barcelona's 40 competitive matches, starting 31 of them. It's taken two years but he is close to becoming as important at the Nou Camp as he was at the Emirates.
It was never going to be easy — Fabregas will have understood that when he was jeered at the Nou Camp when he played for Arsenal in the Champions League. Opinion was always divided on the wisdom of paying €30m (around £27m) for a player who had walked away for free eight years before.
The then Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola had personally requested the signing and at first he changed the team's system to a 3-4-3 with Fabregas at the top of a midfield diamond dovetailing perfectly with Lionel Messi, whom he had played alongside in a Barcelona youth team 10 years earlier.
The goals and praise came early but that 3-4-3 system led to defensive glitches and, when 4-3-3 returned, Fabregas's role in the team was less clear. Two summers on and the arrival of Neymar seemed to cloud his future further.
There were doubts but they were not shared by the new coach. In an interview while still coach of Newell's Old Boys, Gerardo "Tata" Martino had mentioned the former Arsenal captain, saying: "Barcelona's style would be a lot harder to maintain without Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc." He was clearly a fan.
As much as Guardiola was an idol for Fabregas growing up, the relationship between the two as player and coach never developed as both would have hoped and was cut short when Pep quit the club. Martino has been the positive influence on Fabregas he has missed since parting company with Arsène Wenger.
"He [Martino] lets me play with the qualities that most stand out in my game and I feel very comfortable. On his third or fourth day in charge he called me over and told me, 'I want you to be the player you were at Arsenal'. And he said it very directly and in a way that made me think, 'Wow, at Arsenal I felt very good'.
"He said to me: 'I want you to play like that.' Things are not so clearly defined in terms of positions as they were under Pep and Tito. When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little, without going too far."
The slightly more Premier League style of Barça's Argentine coach has not pleased the Barcelona purists but it has been perfect for Fabregas, who was always so at home in the blood and thunder of England's top division.
As Tuesday's team news will once again confirm, Fabregas's place is no longer up for debate. "If you play one game and then the next but then comes the big game away to Bayern Munich and we are losing 4-0 and you are not even warming up, then, whether you like it or not, it gets you down," he says.
He now says he is happier than ever at having come back and at having stayed put in the summer. Life is good off the pitch with old friends Pique and Messi still close. His partner, Daniella Semaan, is close friends with Messi's girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo, and both have young children.
"I never planned to go back. It was always clear in my mind that I wanted to succeed at Barcelona. And I was going to give everything I could to triumph here," he says, adding: "I spoke with [Josep] Bartomeu and he told me, 'You are not going anywhere; we have full confidence in you.'" Bartomeu is now Barcelona's president after Sandro Rosell resigned last month.
When Barcelona re-signed Fabregas two years ago the plan was to bring back together the class of 1987 – three exceptional talents born in that year, that came together as the spine of a youth side coached by Tito Vilanova in 2002, before Pique went to Manchester United and Fabregas to Arsenal.
Now with Pique looking back at his majestic best in defence and Messi imperious in attack, Fabregas finally looks ready to join the dots between them.
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