James Lawton: Aragones requires creative belief to quell Russia's new horizon

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It should have been his greatest season, many believed, when he played with a stunning intelligence and flair for Arsenal in the great cathedral of Italian football, San Siro, but then, who knows, it might yet be so.

Cesc Fabregas played for slightly less than an hour last night as the old warlord of Spanish football, Luis Aragones, thrust him into the kind of deadlock his Italian opponents long ago made a work of art, but he did none of his work with less than the vision and confidence which has marked him out for some years now as potentially the world's most inventive midfielder.

Fabregas did not touch those kind of San Siro heights that came when Arsenal made what promised to be a huge stride in the Champions League against Milan in March. He could not because the Italians, a team hanging on in this superb tournament as though from memory – albeit an extremely reliable one – always seemed to have one last counter to the extravagant possibilities of Fernando Torres, David Villa and David Silva at the Spanish front.

But when the moment came to apply the final sword-stroke which would put the champions of the world out of their misery, the 21-year-old Fabregas carried the demeanour of a war-scarred veteran. It was the final kick of a shootout that had become as certain as the sunrise over the Viennese woods and if this means of settling a football argument will always be a horror for the purists, no one doubts now the devastating potential of its emotional force. We have only to consult John Terry on the matter, but then the Chelsea man's angst seemed far more than a thousand miles away when Fabregas stepped up to the ball.

Though he faced that most redoubtable of Italian goalkeepers, Gianluigi Buffon, there was an absolute certainty to his penalty, so much so that even though the Azzurri captain half-read it, he was still powerless.

Fabregas came on as a substitute again, this time for the Barcelona playmaker Xavi, who worked with a slavish dedication to break down the Italians but never seemed likely to feel the soft breath of inspiration on a hot humid night. But now you have to wonder if Aragones' doubts about the hero of the Emirates – which apparently most concern his stamina and a certain tempestuousness of spirit – might relent in the face of the new and extraordinary weight of the challenge he faces against Guus Hiddink's Russians here in the same stadium on Thursday night.

Aragones must certainly grasp that for all the individual talent of the squad that is promising to end Spain's long and, given the weight of ability that has been thrown up so regularly down the years, mysterious futility in the international game, he will need more to subdue the vibrant Russians.

Hiddink's team look like one thrilled by the sight of new horizons. For much of last night Spain suggested something quite different. They seemed as though, far from being drawn to their new prospects, they were seriously inhibited by them. Torres was one of the major casualties, He was withdrawn in the second half when he seemed increasingly affected by the harassment of such as Giorgio Chiellini and Christian Panucci and but for a couple of trademark turns, never seriously threatened Buffon.

Fabregas may not be the same player as the Russian revelation, Andrei Arshavin, not in position or style, but what he does have, apart from a wonderfully complete creative personality, is a similar belief in his own powers and possibilities.

For the Spain coach there was, no doubt, a certain caution in his moment of triumph. It came from the fact that Roberto Donadoni's team had nothing serious to offer other than the eternal statement of Italians that they receive defensive nous along with their mother's milk.

Had this nourishment proved a decisive factor in this of all tournaments it would surely have been a heavy blow to the idea that what we are seeing here is indeed the best and most liberated international football in at least two decades.

The problem, though, is that the team that put down the Italians did not do it with a relish or a style which would have made a rather deeper comment than the usual measurements of win and loss.

Indeed, there were a few disfiguring moments in the Spanish march towards their destiny and if Villa, particularly, showed some flamenco snap, he was also guilty of the most appalling dive. Compared to the level of such atrocities in the last World Cup, this was a relatively rare lapse, but it did take a little more of the glow from a night which was supposed to make another statement about the European Championships which have given football new and unexpected reasons to believe in the future.

As of now no-one seems to represent that future more excitingly than a previously obscure Russian named Arshavin. However, do not rule out the possibilities over the next few days of a more familiar name. Cesc Fabregas's run for the glory may be late. But we should watch for it, all the same.