Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

James Lawton: Barcelona's pursuit of Fabregas highlights state of English game

Cesc Fabregas

It was not enough for Barcelona to consign the Premier League, along with the rest of the European game, to the margins of the extravagant ball they staged on a spring night at Wembley.

Now they treat the man who used to be the crown jewel of Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas, as an optional extra, a nice, sparkling little item to have lying around on the dressing room table.



Barça's admission that while their native son Fabregas is considered a potentially valuable asset he still lags some way behind the Udinese striker Alex Sanchez as their No 1 target is doubtless no more than an honest assessment of their strategic priorities.

Still, though, it must hurt not only Arsène Wenger and the Arsenal faithful who down the years have imagined the day when he would carry them back to some of the old creative certainties.



Also damaged, surely, is the idea that the failures of English football last season, when it fell so far below the level of power and menace it had so long assigned to itself, can be quickly repaired when the new season kicks off in less than a month.



Who, really, can we see storming the high ground Barcelona claimed so emphatically?



Chelsea under the zealous – or given some of his early pronouncements, maybe naïve – leadership of wonder boy coach Andre Villas-Boas? You wouldn't want to invest the mortgage, would you, however hard he bangs on about his duty to Roman Abramovich to deliver the Champions League title that proved beyond Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and even the resourceful Guus Hiddink. Not when the entire new trouble-shooting force after last season's miserable decline looks likely to be no broader than the brilliantly gifted but not overpowering Luka Modric and the Anderlecht tyro Romelu Lukaku.



Manchester United, who were so easily dismantled by Barça at Wembley, have made big-money investments in David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young but the word is that they are unprepared to meet the pay demands of Wesley Sneijder, the one player on their wish list who had proved he could deliver at the highest level in midfield – the place where United were ultimately so profoundly exposed by the sublime axis of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.



This leaves the blockbusting possibility that Manchester City will finally jettison their talented but also tedious ingrate Carlos Tevez and bring in Diego Maradona's son-in-law Sergio Aguero and maybe Sneijder. This has the whiff of serious business – and another advance for a team who by the end of last season were beginning to suggest they might just reward Roberto Mancini for believing in them a little more.



However, in a high summer of brilliant sport – with Sachin Tendulkar promising to maintain at Lord's over the next few days the superior entertainment levels already produced by the likes of Novak Djokovic, Darren Clarke and Tom Watson – it cannot be said that the English pre-dinner football cocktail has had the taste buds standing on ends.



This time last summer there was every reason to believe that Chelsea would march on beyond the formidable levels achieved in Ancelotti's immediate annexation of the League and Cup Double. Now, after a season of ultimate misadventure, we have the upwardly mobile Villas-Boas telling us of the inevitability of that European triumph.



However, his plan to make Chelsea "football untouchables" would seem to need quite a bit more youthful and outstandingly gifted flesh on its bones.



Villas-Boas declares: "In the next years the trophy will arrive in this club. Chelsea have been in two semi-finals and also one final in recent times. I don't see why we can't go on and win it. Based on the trophies these players have won before and the success they have had, aren't these the players you want in the end? Could be, no?" His methods are apparently inspiring rather more enthusiasm among senior players at Stamford Bridge these days than when he, as Jose Mourinho's youthful scout of opposition, besieged them with videos and dossiers. This is, of course, the way of football and no doubt Villas-Boas can bank on some sharpened effort among the Chelsea warhorses in the first passionate flush of his leadership.



Indeed, Frank Lampard, who with John Terry has in his professional survival kit a so far flawless ability to shift with each new phase of an erratic Chelsea story, insists: 'Everything is very fast and intense. There hasn't been one training session where people can relax or be sloppy.



"The fact Andre is such a young manager is irrelevant. There is a nice freshness, a new style and different training methods from last year."



Of course, Carlo is dead, long live Andre. It is, like quite a bit else in English football this summer, perhaps not the most thrilling of battle cries. But then, who knows, maybe there is a little revolution in the air. Perhaps if Cesc Fabregas finally says Adios, it will not be just another reason to sigh. It is, at least, a pretty thought.

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