By Richard Clarke
When Cesc Fabregas hobbled to the touchline just before half-time at Emirates Stadium on December 21 his face looked as forlorn and helpless as Arsenal’s season.
Arsène Wenger’s side had already lost five games early in the campaign and, as the captain trudged down the tunnel, you could feel the critics were sharpening their tongues as well as their pencils.
The last thing Arsenal needed was a major knee injury to one of their best players inflicted by one of his closest friends – Xabi Alonso of Liverpool.
Fabregas was clearly missed early on as Wenger’s fledglings barely kept their season aloft. However the manager argues this very struggle means that, when Fabregas returns on Saturday for the visit of Manchester City, his side will be flying.
For the manager, it just goes to prove that Arsenal are not a one-man team – even if that man is Cesc Fabregas.
“This is what I have told you,” Wenger explained. “We have a good squad here. People forget that we are not a one-man team.
“We are a team with a way to play, who have a squad of 20 young players.
“When you are 20 years-old, you are better in March than you are in September. When you are 36 you are worse in March than you are in September.
“People don’t take that into any consideration at all. They think a player is a quantity and one that remains exactly the same. You forget that from 20 to 23 you are a different animal every six months. And when you are 36, every six months you are a worse animal.
“It is a part of the laws of nature. Physically a man improves from 20 until 23 quicker than from 26 to 29. And every short-term science shows that after 29, he goes down.
"The manager's view is maybe not always the most objective one, but you always try to read what's happening in the team.
"I was always confident we would be OK this season. These players have grown up together. When you do that you go through difficult periods together and in the future that will make the team stronger.”
Of course the return of Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring) and Theo Walcott (knee) will give Arsenal some steel as they endeavour to extend an impressive 16-game unbeaten run in the Premier League. But the loss of Robin van Persie (groin), Eduardo (groin), Abou Diaby (thigh) and Samir Nasri (flu) are damaging. That list, and a crowded April, means Wenger may juggle his side through the next few games.
“I haven’t picked the team for Saturday yet,” said Wenger. “It depends a little bit on the number of games played by the other players and how long they were away on international duty. For example Arshavin will play - even though he featured on Wednesday - because he will not play on Tuesday [in Villarreal]. So it depends a little bit on the whole balance of the team.”
Ironically enough, Arsenal’s last League defeat came at the City of Manchester Stadium on November 22. It was a rare highlight for Mark Hughes’ side this season but in fairness they have recovered sufficiently to have reached a Uefa Cup Quarter-Final and retain the opportunity of qualifying for Europe again via the League.
Fabregas was missing at Eastlands that day and the issue of William Gallas’ captaincy was also raging. But this weekend Arsenal are looking to cement a top four spot against a team who have not won on the road since August. They also have FA Cup and Champions League commitments in April that could see eight first-team fixtures.
“We are on a fantastic run,” said Wenger. “The longest anyone has made in the Premier League this season.
“We have to do as well as we can now and, after that, we can accept every verdict.
“I believe we can be hugely successful, but of course from now on every game is nearly a decider. That means the unity of the group and the intelligence of the group will be tested.
“I have confidence we have all that is needed.”
And the return of Fabregas can only help.
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