James Lawton: Champions League offers Fabregas an immediate chance for redemption

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The Independent Football

In his hood and rather venomous expression, and with considerable form in the repellent teenage behaviour stakes, Cesc Fabregas did not exactly enhance his more heroic image this week. Still, was anyone ever given more swiftly a chance of redemption than the ageing boy wonder (he will be 22 in May) when the Champions League draw was made yesterday?

Seven to one are the odds currently being offered against it happening, in its purest, most perfect form, that is, and no one need be ashamed if they are tempted.

No doubt the charge that Fabregas spat in the face or at the feet of Hull City assistant manager Brian Horton is bound to linger in the mind for some time, especially when it is placed alongside his alleged pizza-tossing at Sir Alex Ferguson and petulantly abrasive exchanges with Mark Hughes and Michael Ballack, but then we all should know by now he has another side – and that it is one brilliantly equipped to earn spectacular absolution.

Inspiring victory for the critically discounted Arsenal in the Champions League final in Rome against Barcelona would do the job very nicely, especially in this corner where a wager has duly been made, and not entirely out of the so far unshakeable euphoria that came with support, at 22-1, for American Trilogy at Cheltenham last week.

A big stretch, you may say, for the prodigy who is only now returning to fitness, but is it really beyond the reach of such a gifted player and a team which at last is showing some signs of finding itself again as a purveyor of not just superior but potentially sublime football? No, it is most certainly not.

Derision, we can be sure, will be heaped upon the idea in places like Anfield, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford; the mere idea of it will be taken as the provocation to sneer, and perhaps not least in some corners of the Emirates, where the cognoscenti have for some time been wielding inverted thumbs in the direction of Arsène Wenger's apparently eroding dreams. The trouble with a sneer is that it is often too easy a reaction. It doesn't permit time to review the evidence, or look around a few corners.

With Fabregas picking up his game, which at its best is as fine and as abundantly intuitive as anything in world football, Arsenal should beat Villarreal in the quarter-finals. Assuming Manchester United manage to regroup sufficiently, after some distinctly troubling recent form, to dispense with arguably the weakest of the surviving eight clubs, Porto, they will provide formidable but surely not unsurpassable opposition over two legs. They were, after all, beaten at the Emirates earlier this season, before Fabregas was cut down.

What we are investigating here, no doubt, is something of a dream but then it also falls some way short of outright fantasy. Yes, the claims of United, refired Liverpool and a Chelsea team immeasurably strengthened by the return of the real Didier Drogba, a rampantly fit Michael Essien and the proven leadership and common sense of Guus Hiddink, represent another dreadnought challenge by the Premier League, one to threaten heavily even the beauty of Barcelona's game and the scale of Lionel Messi's talent.

Indeed, some will see compelling reasons to make Liverpool-Chelsea the pivotal tie, that the winner will carry the kind of physical and competitive aura which United and Chelsea brought to last season's final, when a representative of La Liga gasped at the sheer weight and pace of the "English game".

Yet none of this disqualifies from contention the possibility of a renewed Arsenal. How can it, if you recall the way they ransacked the reigning champions Milan last season, and who was it that mesmerised the vast terracing of San Siro? It was, of course, Fabregas, fulfilling all that precocious talent he had long displayed, and brought together so magnificently for three-quarters of a season, when Wenger invited him to replace the inspiration and the leadership that departed with Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.

The season of Fabregas crumbled in the wider dislocation that came with the sickening injury to Eduardo and the meltdown of William Gallas as a credible captain. But had he not shown quite enough to justify faith in a second coming? The belief that he had was surely underpinned by his superb contribution to Spain's European Championship triumph in the summer.

There is also, maybe, another aspect to his performance at the end of the Hull Cup tie that might just be worth considering. Whatever it said about his manners, it certainly did not suggest indifference to what had been happening on the field. It had more to say, perhaps, about the level of frustration he had felt at his enforced absence from a crucial slice of a season running into futility.

Arsenal, more than any team in the Champions League, are branded with the mark of underachievement this season. It is no slight motivation for a team which, in case we have forgotten, is still equipped with talent of an extremely high order; not only Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and, if he regains fitness and some of the spirit that made him at one point seem such an exciting successor to Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, are capable of outstanding attacking performance. In just four games now it could carry them to a place at the top of European football.

This, of course, is just one possibility thrown up by a quarter-final draw laden with power and skill and intrigue. In all of this, though, it would be unwise to forget that lure of redemption. It might just make Arsenal champions and, who knows, a man of Cesc Fabregas.

Moans by Morris another nadir for English cricket

English cricket has had so many low points these last few months it is hard to imagine it would consciously seek out another. But of course it has.

The declaration by the ECB chief executive, Hugh Morris, that he is "dismayed" by the decision of Kent and Middlesex to offer succour to England's Ashes rivals by hiring Stuart Clark (right) and Phil Hughes tells us still more about the psychology of the English game we didn't really need to know. Morris says that Clark, recovering from injury, and Hughes, discovering English conditions, should not be allowed such facility.

Two points leap out. One is that, unlike the organisers of the English Test game, the Australians have a sure sense of what is required in terms of preparation for an important competition. By comparison, the ECB was prepared to allow leading England players to parachute into the coming series against the West Indies after completing their contracts with the Indian Premier League. With or without help from Kent and Middlesex, we can be sure that Clark and Hughes would present themselves for the Ashes action in proper competitive shape. How often can we say that of their English counterparts?

O'Driscoll deserves place in sun with Kyle

The idea that in Cardiff today Wales and Ireland are somehow playing in the shadow of an England that is finally stirring, and that they should enjoy the spotlight of Six Nations' title contention while they can, is both extremely presumptuous and insulting. Wales and Ireland are where they are because they have so splendidly answered the challenge of achieving world-class standards and effectively cultivated some outstanding native talent.

England, if they like, can soothe their disappointment at another championship failure by pointing to what are being described in some quarters as rampant green shoots visible in last week's crushing victory over France.

Better, though, to recognise that they still have a vast amount of work to do – and that the French at Twickenham were bad almost beyond belief.

The bookmakers favour Wales narrowly to disrupt the Irish dream of their first Grand Slam since the days of the immortal Jackie Kyle, but something in the bones cries out for Ireland's return to the mark they last set in 1948.

Their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, was distraught when the ambition last crumbled at the Millennium Stadium and it could well be that it is his last chance to confirm all the hopes of a thrilling career. Sixty-one years separate Kyle and O'Driscoll's best hopes, but today they will be a heartbeat away from a thrill which will unite them for ever. It is an entirely appropriate fate for rugby men of genius.