Every summer sees rampant speculation that Barcelona will finally pull Cesc Fabregas away from Arsenal. In the lead up to Saturday’s North London Derby, even former Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor once again fueled rumors by saying that if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League, then Fabregas will be on his way to Catalunya come summer.
Ade’s comments speak to his confidence that his own Manchester City have what it takes to break in to the oligarchy at the top. Robbie Keane’s midweek comments, in which he claimed that Tottenham’s bench was stronger than Arsenal’s, show that he believes Spurs can challenge as well. But as Aston Villa can attest from last season, and Tottenham can attest from 2006: breaking into the top four is no mean feat, and it requires practically perfect concentration for a season that spans 10 months. In the day’s early kickoff, Arsenal hosted their most bitter foes in a match where the visitors were looking to prove their credentials for Europe’s top club competition.
Instead, what was on display yet again was Cesc Fabregas’s commitment to the Arsenal cause. Earlier in the season, he celebrated a goal by kissing his badge and pointing to the stands, as if to say once more that he is indeed an Arsenal player for the long term. Today, Fabregas collected a loose ball at the halfway line, beat two players, nutmegged Ledley King, and then coolly drilled the ball into the low near corner–in a manner that was reminiscent of Thierry Henry’s famous Bernabeu solo effort (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuCL2wvjOtU) –before jubilantly sprinting toward the stands in celebration. While Robin van Persie’s breakthrough goal gave Arsenal a slightly fortunate lead, the captain’s strike was both a literal goal that put the game beyond Spurs, and a figurative statement to fans and foes alike: that this team will go as far as Cesc Fabregas will take them.
Earlier in the season, Pat Dolan of Setanta Sports criticized Fabregas for not celebrating enthusiastically enough when he scored a late goal. While Dolan’s commentary is often prescient, in that case it seemed to be a bit of a reach. Fabregas is in the unfortunate position of having to constantly deny that he has designs on returning to Spain. He has said whenever asked that he would like to go back someday, but not in the near future. This is the sort of game that clearly demonstrates that his heart is with the Gunners–and he showed his fans exactly that with a spectacular effort against their fiercest rivals.
On top of the performance of Fabregas, it should be noted that Arsenal finally managed to keep a clean sheet and by all rights should have had more goals. Eduardo, a first half substitute for the injured Nicklas Bendtner (whose groin pull will be one of the few low points of the match), spurned three legitimate chances to score. Two of those chances were efforts that he ordinarily would make short work of, and the third was a header that he could easily have put to either side of Heurelho Gomes. Abou Diaby made a great run late on a corner, only to have the ball hit his shoulder instead of his head, and Ramsey and Fabregas had a fantastic opportunity right at the death to pile more misery on Spurs, but one would suspect that the injury to Sebastien Bassong and the three goal lead led to their weak concession of the ball.
All of this came on the heels of the late collapses at West Ham and AZ Alkmaar (excepting Liverpool in the Carling Cup because of the vastly different sides). What Arsene Wenger must do is use this victory, and all its positives, to push Arsenal onward and upward. If they can learn to keep a clean sheet and keep scoring three goals even when spurning five other clear chances, then the title race will surely have to include a North London team–and no, Robbie Keane, not Tottenham.