In the aftermath of Alvaro Morata’s opening goal for Spain in their 2-1 defeat to Croatia on Tuesday, Chelsea fans would have been forgiven for pondering the possibilities. The club, entering a crucial summer with Antonio Conte at the helm, have long been linked with a move for the striker, who tapped home his third goal of the European Championship in Bordeaux. The thought of the past and future Real Madrid star performing in Chelsea blue was an intriguing thought. The identity of the man who assisted his goal was of equal interest.
For much of the past season, Cesc Fabregas went by a different alias. Along with ‘Iazzard’ and ‘Costa’, ‘Cesl’ had been vilified as one of Chelsea’s infamous ‘three rats’. After playing a key role in a Premier League title-winning side, the Spaniard had become one of the primary antagonists in their drastic regression. The former provider of assists had joined the Blues’ blacklist.
Save for something of a late-season resurgence, Fabregas will be content for his past year to be consigned to history. But, in his third game of this summer’s tournament, he proved that he remains one of the finest midfielders in Europe.
“Not his very best,” was Glenn Hoddle’s frank assessment of the 29-year-old’s performance upon his substitution. For the previous 83 minutes, Fabregas had run himself into the French turf, playing as selflessly for his country as he had aimlessly for his club over the past 12 months. He may not have been at “his very best”, but he was nevertheless as influential as any player before his exit.
Only the excellent David Silva made more key passes than his fellow Premier League stalwart (three). Only Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta had more touches (97). Only a late winner from Ivan Perisic, four minutes after Fabregas’ removal, prevented him a deserved place atop Group D. This was the Cesc drive Chelsea had been missing under Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink.
As it happened, Croatia were more than worthy victors, and while they are yet to discover their opponents in the last 16, they know they have avoided Spain’s next adversary: Italy.
It was the combination of Silva and Fabregas which sliced through the Croatian defence with ease within ten minutes. The Manchester City midfielder, himself performing well after a poor season, spotted his teammate’s incisive run, with the Chelsea man expertly guiding the ball towards Morata. The 23-year-old striker, finally confirmed as Real Madrid-bound, continues in his quest to make this author look rather bloody silly.
Spain failed to build on such early dominance. This was not necessarily a defensive masterclass from Croatia; they stood up to the reigning champions, nullified their threat then proved an irresistible force on the counter-attack. All this, and they were without Luka Modric.
But Conte, who must have impressed Chelsea fans thus far in confounding expectations with Italy, will be relieved at the renaissance of Fabregas. He endured a difficult campaign, but that was a fate that few, if any, at Stamford Bridge escaped. If this was “not his very best”, then there is reason for anticipation. After a season of Cesl, Chelsea’s Cesc appeal might have returned.