By Richard Clarke
Beware Everton, Cesc Fabregas is back - properly.
The Arsenal midfielder has had a stop-start season so far. A mixture of World Cup fatigue and niggling injuries have affected his body.
But, ahead of Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, Arsène Wenger claimed his captain was now 95 per cent fit physically (with the other five on the way) and paid tribute to his focus mentally.
While it is not quite true to say ‘if Cesc plays, Arsenal plays’, the Spaniard lubricates the cogs in Wenger’s machine. His team have clinked and clanked their way into title contention during the first third of the Premier League. Frankly, they will need to improve, at the very least, their consistency and their home form to overtake Chelsea.
Fortunately it is quite apparent there is headroom and his ever-improving captain is the perfect person to fill the void.
“Cesc is back,” said the Frenchman at Friday’s press conference.
“It took him a while to settle again. But I am 100 per cent convinced he is focused, motivated and determined more than ever to lead the team to victory.
"I always said that if a player plays the Final of the World Cup you will only see him completely again in November. Not before. I have experience in that with Petit and Vieira.
“Stamina-wise, Cesc is there now. He has lost his restriction in his head and the fear of injury in his hamstring.
“He still lacks a little bit of zip in the decision-making and his acceleration in the final third. He is at 95 per cent.
“But from game to game you will see the real Cesc. Maybe in the next game on Sunday.
“And [that extra five per cent] will make a massive difference. Last year he scored 15 goals and made 18 assists. What is the difference in assist? Sometimes it is an inch.
“I felt we saw a different Cesc at Wolves – focused, motivated, wanted to give everything, no restriction. He was already a completely different player. That means in the next game he should be alright.
“And I must say as well I have been very impressed by his attitude this season. When you think he is 23 years-old, has gone through winning the World Cup plus the speculation and frustration [in the summer].
“People are quick to criticise when you are not professional but you have as well to acknowledge people when they are super professional like he is.
”Fabregas ended the midweek win at Wolves amid controversy. His late challenge on Stephen Ward brought him a booking when the Molineux crowd wanted more. Another sending off was the last thing Wenger needed but the tackle was further evidence that his current Arsenal side are now prepared to ‘mix it’ when required.
“They can [look after themselves],” said the manager.
“We are not a dirty team, you will find even people that don’t like Arsenal will not say we are a dirty team.
“It is a surprise to me that we have four red cards. We are committed and when we face a physical game we have to respond well.”
Wenger could add fit-again full back Kieran Gibbs to his squad and has indicated there may be changes in midfield. Otherwise expect the side that toughed it out at Wolves to roll up their sleeves again at Goodison Park.
Everton are unbeaten in seven games and been defeated in just three of their last 23. Only Manchester City and leaders Chelsea have conceded fewer goals in the Premier League this season. A repeat of last season’s 6-1 win for the visitors is not on the cards.
“If you look at the quality of mid-table, it is quite frightening,” said Wenger. “And Everton are one of those teams.
“We are happy to be where we are but we also have some regrets. We lost against West Brom and Newcastle but by adding three points, just one game, you see where we could be.
“I am convinced we have the potential and the right spirit. We showed that again against Wolves on Wednesday night. We go to Everton where we will want to show a similar commitment that we had there.”
Of course, those defeats to Newcastle and West Brom came at Emirates Stadium. Right now Arsenal have the best away record in the Premier League but are finding few comforts at home.
“There is no obvious reason,” explained Wenger. “Sometimes you go out ‘on your toes’ away from home and a lot depends on the first result you had that season. At the Emirates we feel ‘OK we will win the game’.That’s maybe the problem. But it’s the same everywhere. We struggle at home but teams like Tottenham struggle at home too.”
It is acutely annoying to see Arsenal pretty much cure a familiar malady – picking up points on tough away trips – only to struggle on their own turf. It allows the critics to re-kindle an old condemnation we thought had been seen off.
“I don’t believe there is fragility mentally,” said Wenger when the issue was brought up. “If you look at some very good teams in the middle of the table I don’t think we are too fragile.
“What we have been is a bit disappointing at home recently. Against Newcastle we did not have the adjusted commitment but we have always shown that away from home since the start of the season.
“Even when we lost against Chelsea I think it was an unlucky loss. It is at home we have dropped stupid points.”
In one sense, victory on Sunday would be cruel for Arsenal. It would mean that of the nine Premier League points on offer this week they had thrown away, on paper, the most straightforward three.
That alone would have taken them from trailing Manchester United to tail-gating Chelsea. But then all three teams have their foibles right now.
Like Fabregas, the rest of the squad have a few per cent left in the locker. Strangely enough, that is a comforting thought right now.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source