Remembering the season ‘little kid’ Cesc Fabregas stole Arsenal hearts
Witnessing a young footballer play without shackles and sprinkling the pitch with magic is undoubtedly one of football’s greatest sights, as Cesc Fabregas proved 15 years ago when propelling Arsenal into the Champions League’s latter stages for the first time.
Had the new Brexit rules making English clubs unable to sign foreign players under 18 existed in 2003, Fabregas could easily have slipped through Arsenal’s grasp. Instead, the Gunners poached a 16-year-old Fabregas from Barcelona’s La Masia treasure trove, thus beginning a north London love affair.
The Spaniard went on to become Arsenal’s youngest ever player, youngest goalscorer and El Capitan, but the 2005-06 season was particularly significant for both player and club. It was to be Arsenal’s final season playing at their beloved Highbury home, commemorated by an iconic redcurrant strip.
For Fabregas, who had already made 33 league appearances the previous campaign, it was a season brimming with opportunity. There was a vacant spot at the heart of midfield after the summer departure of captain and talisman Patrick Vieira. But there was only one successor in Arsene Wenger’s eyes.
Thierry Henry remembers Fabregas playing in what resembled an oversized dress; though the shirt was clearly too big for him, Vieira’s boots were not.
Fabregas scored on the opening day of the season, a bright point in a 2-1 Community Shield defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea – foreshadowing what was to come later that season.
In the league, young Cesc grabbed goals against Blackburn and Fulham by developing a habit of arriving late into dangerous positions. With Gilberto Silva acting as a midfield enforcer alongside him, Fabregas had the freedom to ghost further up the pitch, playing incisive combinations with Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp – a dream for any player.
“I was so lucky to be brought up by these great players and great men,” he told Arseblog in March. “I was the little kid in that team and everyone was taking care of me. They were so positive.”
It was in Europe, however, where the future World Cup winner made his bones.
Despite a quiet start to the Champions League group stages, Fabregas announced himself as Europe’s most prized playmaking talent in the last-16 against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
It was Fabregas who provided the five-yard pass, generously labelled an assist, to Henry before the Frenchman breezed through Los Blancos’ ranks to take the lead with one of the tournament’s greatest solo goals.
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The young Spaniard was integral to the Gunners’ success over both ties, using his technique and intelligence to guide Wenger’s men into the quarter-finals via a 1-0 aggregate win.
What came next was special, a performance against Juventus at Highbury which has become part of Arsenal folklore.
Dubbed “the young pretender” by ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley, Fabregas scored an emphatic goal, assisted Henry for the other and dictated the tempo as he ascended to stardom against the likes of Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro.
Did we mention that he also outclassed his former skipper, Vieira, who had returned to his old stomping ground in black and white only to be schooled by the teenager?
After fending off Juventus in Turin to secure a 2-0 win, the Gunners scraped through the semi-final legs against Villarreal. A Kolo Toure goal and Jens Lehmann’s last-minute penalty save to deny Juan Roman Riquelme were enough to set the scene for Fabregas to return to face his boyhood club Barcelona in the final.
There’s no other way to put it, Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Barcelona was a huge turning point for the club. Having taken an early lead, Lehmann’s 18th-minute red card triggered a series of events that resulted in a gut-wrenching outcome for the Gunners on the night.
Had they won, Wenger could well have gone on to win numerous domestic titles in the post-Highbury era while retaining his players and attracting world-class talent. Instead, heroes like Fabregas and Henry grew frustrated and, along with several others, eventually jumped ship to the Catalans in a cruel twist of fate.
Still, despite the agony and heartbreak of losing the final in Paris, the lessons learned by Fabregas that season became a key part of his footballing DNA.
Fabregas’ 2005-06 campaign and Arsenal career as a whole is ultimately a microcosm of everything that makes us so emotionally invested in football: the hope, the jubilation and the cruel tragedy.
By Kasra Moradi