As the Boeing 757 carrying the Arsenal squad home late on Wednesday night gained altitude over the Portuguese countryside on its way back to Luton, the Arsenal captain, Cesc Fabregas, had something he wanted to say.
He had already berated his team-mates for their costly lapses in concentration, describing the club's defending as "schoolboy" and "too soft". Now he wanted to speak to the fans sitting towards the rear of the plane, each of whom had paid several hundreds of pounds to fly out for the first leg of Arsenal's Champions League knock-out stage tie with Porto.
"I want to apologise for losing the game," Fabregas said over the plane's PA system, prompting a round of applause from devoted supporters. The fans were grateful that at least someone had acknowledged that Arsenal should have done better than to concede two of the sloppiest goals seen in Europe for some time. However they might also reflect that the Spaniard's announcement was evidence, if any were needed, that he is starting to run out of patience with the club that is in danger of becoming too small for its rising superstar.
At the age of 22, Fabregas is the man they look to both on and off the pitch, yet his career is still very much in its infancy. What's more, he is also having to play in a different role for the team, often in a more advanced position where he is already closely marked by an opponent whenever he receives the ball. The prospect of a return to Barcelona has surely never looked more inviting.
Fabregas had witnessed 24 hours earlier the lavish praise heaped on Wayne Rooney for his display for Manchester United at San Siro. Now he had to accept another occasion on which Arsenal had failed to meet expectations. One exceptionally talented young man was accepting the plaudits; the other was having to apologise for the failings of others.
His assessment of Arsenal's failure was so cutting it was uncharacteristic, and perhaps indicates that he has had enough. He said: "Sometimes we are not strong enough to lift ourselves. Sometimes we make mistakes that at the top level you pay. It happened against Chelsea and Manchester United and now again so I think we have to try to find the solution to these problems because it is costing us many, many things. The other top teams don't make these mistakes as often as we do."
It sounded like a man at the end of his tether. He had seen stand-in goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski make terrible errors for both Porto goals; first in allowing Silvestre Varela's harmless cross to slip under his body; and then in picking up Sol Campbell's back pass and turning his back as Porto took the indirect free-kick almost immediately.
Fabregas defended Fabianski, saying he will receive the support of his team-mates. "He is strong and we have to be there for him," he said. "The team will be 100 per cent behind him and help him in the next game to come back to his best."
The situation is worrying for manager Arsène Wenger. The longer his side go without a serious trophy – currently four seasons and counting – the more likely it is that he will lose his best player. Barcelona would pay up to £40m to have Fabregas back. The temptation to accept the invitation grows every time Arsenal blow another opportunity to realise their obvious potential.
Arsenal's away goal, scored by the 35-year-old Campbell, means Wenger's side are still very much in the tie and they could still overturn the result in the second leg next month. The evidence suggests, however, that the tide is turning away from Arsenal in the mind of their talented captain.Reuse content