Sir Alex Ferguson did not come to the Emirates for the sunshine, the hospitality or a cosy chat with his new friend Arsène Wenger. He came yesterday to see with his own eyes the bad news for Manchester United: Cesc Fabregas is back to his very best.
The Manchester United manager was in attendance to scout Wednesday's Champions League opposition and witness the secret behind Arsenal's late-season renaissance. And wherever the old boy followed the play yesterday his eye will have been drawn back to the brilliant Spanish midfielder whose passing and tackling – not to mention his two goals – set him apart.
It was just Fabregas' fourth game after his return from a knee injury that wiped out more than three months of his season – and they were his first goals since 4 October – but it was the assurance with which he played that gives Arsenal cause for hope. He was brushed aside by Michael Essien and Frank Lampard in last weekend's FA Cup semi-final defeat but this looked more like the Fabregas of last season.
Wenger said that Fabregas "gets sharper and sharper from game to game". He added: "He was out for three months and you can't come back to your best straight away. But now he gets better in every game. Every player who plays in midfield, who thinks he's an offensive player, creative player, needs to score goals and what happened here is important. We wanted to keep the momentum going. It's better to win than to lose and to rest players.
"I believe the first target was to win the game because that's the best preparation. If you go to Old Trafford without belief you make it very difficult from the start. We'll go there with belief, with desire and with enjoyment because we enjoy being where we are and, of course, we will give absolutely everything to do it."
Fabregas played in the hole behind Nicklas Bendtner, shaping the best of Arsenal's attacks. The game at Old Trafford is set to be a collector's piece, contested by two teams who are currently shaky in defence but irresistible in attack. The consolation for Ferguson is that he will not have to concern himself with the cup-tied Andrei Arshavin.
The one injury worry for Wenger is Mikaël Silvestre whose "back spasm", the Arsenal manager said, means he is rated only "50-50" for the game at Old Trafford. That is not to say that Silvestre will be a great loss against United. Judging by the way he was bullied by Didier Drobga the previous week, Arsenal might be better off with Johan Djourou who, Wenger conceded, was still not completely recovered from injury.
Although they drifted in the second half, there were times when Arsenal's football was breathtaking – especially in the course of their first goal, on 26 minutes, when they cut through Middlesbrough with a devastating sequence of passes. In the Emirates directors' box, Ferguson might have muttered "offside" when the ball was crossed in and Bendtner strayed but the football itself was mesmerising.
From Arshavin to Bendtner – what a backheel – to Fabregas and down the left to Arshavin, they were through Middlesbrough in the blink of an eye. The Russian's cross was straight to the feet of Fabregas and he angled his shot past Brad Jones. "There is no question it was offside, he [Bendtner] was interfering with play," Gareth Southgate said. "But we have to look at the whole 90 minutes and we didn't do enough to get a result."
It looks particularly bleak for Middlesbrough now, three points from safety with four games to play. "All we have to do now is beat the world champions," said Southgate bleakly in reference to United's visit to the Riverside on Saturday. After that they face Newcastle (away), Aston Villa (home) and West Ham (away) with their chances of survival ebbing badly. "Results were kind to us this weekend and we wanted to capitalise," Southgate said.
Stewart Downing and Robert Huth were excellent yesterday but Jérémie Aliadière choked when presented with the best chance of the match from Downing's long pass.
Their manager believes his team need "two wins and two draws" to survive which is one hell of a long shot. "We are probably underdogs for the four matches coming up but we are still fighting," he said. "We have to win [against United] next week."
Emmanuel Adebayor made a late substitute's appearance, confirming that he too will be fit for the game on Wednesday.
Wenger admitted he met Ferguson in the boardroom before the match. "I thought he was coming to watch Middlesbrough," Wenger said. "We have good red wine in the directors' box." Arsenal's second goal came when Emmanuel Eboué played in Fabregas who went round Jones to score.
By beating Middlesbrough, the Arsenal captain had done a relegation battle favour to his bête noire Hull City who he will face later this season in a Football Association disciplinary hearing. In the meantime he looks in the kind of form that will make Wednesday's game one of those nights to remember.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Eboué, Djourou, Touré, Silvestre (Djourou, ht), Gibbs; Walcott (Diaby, 69), Denilson, Nasri, Arshavin; Fabregas (Adebayor, 69); Bentdner.
Substitutes not used: Sagna, Vela, Song, Fabianski (gk).
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Jones; McMahon (Digard, 74), Wheater, Huth, Taylor; O'Neil, Tuncay, Bates; Downing; King (Johnson, 62), Aliadière (Emnes, 86).
Substitutes not used: Hoyte, Alves, Turnbull (gk), Grounds.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside)
Man of the match: Fabregas
Attendance: 60,089Reuse content