It was a fond farewell in the end for Cesc Fabregas, if not quite the final performance he would have wished for.
The Spaniard was appearing in what is expected to be his last game for Chelsea ahead of a move to Monaco, and had wasted a first-half penalty when the scores were still level against Championship Nottingham Forest. Luke Steele called the bluff on a run-up that was not so much stuttering as subject to a contemplative delay, as if Fabregas had just remembered he’d forgotten to put his valedictory champagne in the fridge and was wondering whether to head off and do it now.
His late substitution was well met by the Stamford Bridge crowd, who applauded him warmly off the pitch, and if there had been any doubt that this would be the last time they would have the chance to do so, that was erased by yet more Fabregas pauses, this time so he could bid an unmistakable goodbye to Eden Hazard and David Luiz. Seems a bit strange given that he would obviously see them again about 10 minutes later once the final whistle had blown, and indeed would be nakedly showering with them shortly thereafter; but that is, to be fair, apparently the way of things in football. Let us all just be glad we don’t have to do the same whenever we have a work leaving party.
If this is to be the last time we see Fabregas play in English competition, then he leaves behind a very respectable record. Only Ryan Giggs (162) is ahead of Fabregas (111) on the all-time Premier League assists list, despite the Spaniard being just 31 and having a three-year sojourn in Barcelona. He claimed 18 of those as he helped Chelsea to the title in his debut season for the club in 2014/15, putting two shy of Thierry Henry’s record for a single season; and supplied a further 12 as Chelsea claimed the title again two years later, despite playing less than half as many minutes.
That last sentence rather belies the problem Fabregas has faced over the last 18 months. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea had won that title largely without him, but collapsed the following year when he was approaching full fitness and playing often – just as the had under Mourinho when he was last consistently a first choice selection in 2015/16, a season that saw him made one of several bat-themed scapegoats by certain sections of the Chelsea support.
It leaves an overall sense that despite those impressive statistics, the midfielder never lived up to the promise of that first half-season for Chelsea in which he set up a frankly ridiculous 15 goals in his first 22 league games.
In a way, though, that is the story of Fabregas’s career as a whole, and of a pattern that has repeated at each of his clubs: incredible early hype vindicated by some incredible early showings that set a standard that he could never possibly maintain. Nine of the 22 La Liga goals he scored for Barcelona came in his first 13 starts in the competition, while his departure from Arsenal came when he was only 24 years old, leaving fans feeling more than a little bit cheated at seeing so few of his best years despite his remarkable emergence as a first team regular at just 17.
Fabregas’s perceived tendency to lapse into langourousness last season inevitably meant he would find his limited in Maurizio Sarri’s high-intensity system this season, leaving the 31-year-old feeling rather like a player from another era of Chelsea’s history. Not just that: a player from another era of the Premier League, a point underlined by the incredible high-energy clinic that Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva put on in Manchester City’s defeat of Liverpool on Thursday night.
It was only appropriate, then, that when he was withdrawn on this final appearance, it was for N’Golo Kante, the epitome of what an elite central midfielder should be in 2019, and a man who Sarri has been lovingly moulding into his own image. But it was also only right that Fabregas, a player who at his best was one of the Premier League’s greatest ever central midfielders, received such a fond and affectionate goodbye.
Steven Chicken is on Twitter