Barca want Cesc Fabregas, but can Arsenal afford to let him go?

NO SUMMER, it seems, can be complete these days without a tortuous transfer tale at Arsenal. Quite often it is the same one, year after year. Remember Patrick Vieira leaving for Real Madrid? That surfaced for three years in a row before

By Paul Chronnell

NO SUMMER, it seems, can be complete these days without a tortuous transfer tale at Arsenal. Quite often it is the same one, year after year.

Remember Patrick Vieira leaving for Real Madrid? That surfaced for three years in a row before the Gunners captain finally did leave, but for Juventus rather than the Bernabeu.

No sooner had he departed than his successor to the armband at Arsenal, Thierry Henry, was the centre of attention for a move to Barcelona.

It didn't happen in 2006, as strongly rumoured, but did a year later when Arsenal's record goalscorer swapped the Emirates for the Nou Camp.

Alexander Hleb followed Henry to Catalonia in 2008 while last year's summer saga was centred around Emmanuel Adebayor, who was first heading to Barcelona, then Inter Milan, before Arsenal accepted a �25m offer from Manchester City.

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There were also plenty of stories circulating over Cesc Fabregas but, as in previous years, they proved unfounded and Arsenal's captain committed himself to the Gunners, as he has done consistently since signing for the club as a 16-year-old.

All that, however, looks to have changed after the captain's comments at the end of last week that must have rudely interrupted Arsene Wenger's end-of-season holiday.

"'If I decide to leave Arsenal, it will be to wear the shirt of Barcelona," said the 23-year-old. "I don't know when this will happen though. I'm very happy at Arsenal. I'm in no hurry to leave the club."

If that sounded much like a lot of what the Gunners captain has said before over a return to his boyhood club, then his demand for his future 'to be sorted before the World Cup starts' [on June 11] was a little more worrying for Arsenal fans.

As far as Wenger is concerned, Fabregas's future is already 'sorted'. He has four years left on his current contract, so any decision over his future will be made by Arsenal, not the player himself, or anybody at Barcelona.

That is a point that seemed to be accepted by Barca vice-president Rafael Yuste on Tuesday.

"The situation with Cesc is different [to that of Valencia's David Villa] because even if you have the will of the player, it's important to talk to the club and if you can, find an agreement. But what makes it easier is that both players want to come to Barca."

That last comment will send a shudder down the spine of Arsenal fans as it would seem to confirm that Fabregas has already made his intentions clear to the Spanish club where he grew up and learned his trade from the age of nine before Wenger came calling in 2003.

Fabregas has been back in Spain frequently during his rehabilitation from the fractured leg - ironically sustained against Barcelona - that ruled him out of the final six weeks of Arsenal's season.

Whether there have been meetings, whether or not Fabregas has been 'tapped-up' is unclear, but it appears some kind of contact has been made between the Gunners' player and his former club.

What has swayed Fabregas over the past year, since he delivered a rousing pledge to stay at Arsenal and win trophies to pay back Wenger and the club for making him the player he is?

The general consensus appears to lie with doubt over Wenger's own future - with the Frenchman yet to confirm he will stay beyond the end of his current contract that expires in a year's time.

There is also a feeling that after five trophyless seasons at Arsenal during which time investment in the squad has been limited compared to their domestic and European rivals, Fabregas has had enough.

Having just had what he called 'the best season of my life' and with a World Cup to follow, Fabregas knows he is at a pivotal moment in his career. Stay in London and he may regret it for ever; move back home and the hero status that has always hovered in the distance for him at the Nou Camp could finally be attainable.

Can Arsenal afford to lose him? Not judging on last season, when his presence was vital - the decline once he was injured in March was there for all to see.

But Wenger has always known that Fabregas will one day return to his Catalan roots, it is no secret, and has already prepared for that day.

However his ideal replacement, Aaron Ramsey, is still some way from recovering from his terrible leg break in February and is unlikely to play again before October.

Another Barcelona exile, Fran Merida has not lived up to his reputation, and is also set to return to Spain this summer, while Jack Wilshere is still only 18.

But the biggest problem for Wenger and Arsenal could be the impact the loss of another major player could have on the rest of the squad, and also the supporters.

Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin have already pleaded for new signings this summer, having seen Kolo Toure and Adebayor leave last year - the last thing they will want to see is Fabregas follow William Gallas out of the Emirates exit door.

The exits of Vieira and Henry were after both had long, distinguished and successful careers at the club. Fabregas however has just turned 23 and has his best years ahead of him.

If he goes this year, for whatever exorbitant price Barcelona would pay, Arsenal's position as a major force in the game would be questioned like never before.

Wenger and the board must fight to keep Fabregas, or risk the wrath of players and supporters alike who feel their club no longer has the status to compete with the best in Europe, or even in England.