James Lawton: Captain has had to juggle responsibility and desire

Fabregas could be forgiven for wanting a return to Spain but he has, largely, repaid Arsenal's faith with maturity
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The Independent Football

Johan Cruyff, a senior legend of Barcelona, says God will help Cesc Fabregas decide his future some time soon. But has he made an appointment?

There are times, certainly, when the young master of The Emirates stadium behaves as though he has room in his life for only one deity – and he happens to wear the No 4 shirt for Arsenal.

Yet if Fabregas's formidable self-belief is often overweening, if the arrogance can cut to the bone and incense so deeply a weathered pro like the Everton manager David Moyes, you hardly have to scratch out a case for the defence.

You build it around a most singular fact. It is that maybe no young professional at the highest level of the game has quite occupied such a vital role in the ambitions of a hugely ambitious but also deeply frustrated football club.

If you admit he can be trouble, who can say he is not worth it?

In so many ways Fabregas has been obliged to be the embodiment of Arsenal and the requirement has been official from the age of 21, when he was given not only the armband but also the baton.

While so many of his peers have enjoyed the breathing room offered by mere potential, Fabregas's gift from Arsène Wenger was the challenge of the captaincy and the demand to inject into the beautiful game the iron and the consistency that delivers results. Not tomorrow, but now. There have been some crushing disappointments, no doubt, but still he has succeeded to a remarkable degree when you consider that Arsenal remain in contention for all the major prizes – and now have their best chance of winning one in six years.

While doing it, Fabregas has juggled hopes, and maybe even yearnings, which would surely have disturbed the equilibrium of a much older head. Consider Fernando Torres' abandonment of all his professed feeling for Liverpool when Chelsea made their first phone call and then set that against the weight of Barcelona's interest in taking Fabregas home – and the contrasting response.

We don't know precisely the level of Wenger's cajoling – though we can guess at the level of respect he has provoked in his prodigy – or the precise details of the Barcelona offer, but we can imagine that Fabregas may have reflected how little he cost Arsenal when he was prised away from the Barça academy – and how much cut-price mileage they have enjoyed.

What is beyond debate is the meaning of Fabregas tonight when Barcelona seek to reproduce at the Emirates the astonishing virtuosity they launched against Arsenal in last season's quarter-final first leg.

That Arsenal emerged from the exquisite firestorm with a 2-2 draw, albeit broken by injury and no doubt gasping for breath, will always be one of the wonders of the game. If it served little practical purpose when Lionel Messi unleashed the goals at the Nou Camp in the second leg, it will surely help to soothe Arsenal nerves tonight when Barça return with Andres Iniesta long since restored to health and glory.

The pace of Theo Walcott is credited with a vital change in the pattern of what promised to be a Barcelona landslide but the strongest memory is of an injured Fabregas scoring the late penalty, and finally hobbling off the field, crocked, suspended but not beaten.

In some ways, no doubt, it had been the worst, most dispiriting night of his football life. But in at least one other it was the best. It had the redemption of character, which is an asset Arsenal have rarely needed as much as they do tonight.