Preparing for a semi-final against Chelsea FC in the city he called home until last summer, Cesc Fàbregas says his return to boyhood team FC Barcelona has far exceeded his expectations.
When he finally bid farewell to Chelsea's London rivals Arsenal FC in August to rejoin the club he left as a 16-year-old in 2003, talked turned to how the midfielder would break into a side which had just completed the UEFA Champions League and Liga double.
Any concerns were quickly dispelled – the 24-year-old slotted seamlessly back into life at the Camp Nou with a flurry of early-season goals, form which has taken the man himself by surprise. "It has been much better than I expected," said Fàbregas. "I have played more than I thought I would.
I came here to learn and get better, both as a player and person, and to experience weeks like this, when we will play Chelsea in the semi-final and Real Madrid in the league. It's the most important week of the season."
Captain of a youthful team for his final three years in north London, Fàbregas feels he has taken his game to another level in Catalonia. "I’ve learned a lot, especially tactically," he said. "At Arsenal I was free to do whatever I wanted and tactically I wasn't good at all.
"Here I have to work much more for the team and be married to my position – I can't just go wherever I want to. I have to think tactically, and that's the thing I feel I have improved on. I feel more mature as a player."
While this semi-final is a fixture steeped in recent European Cup tradition – the clubs have met ten times since 2000, most famously at this stage three years ago – Fàbregas has plenty of Chelsea-related accounts of his own to tell after facing the Blues in 16 London derbies during his time with the Gunners.
"I've had interesting games against Chelsea and now I expect to have the same with Barcelona," he said. "Even though we tried to keep possession with Arsenal it was quite difficult to play them because they can create on the break and [Didier] Drogba can score. You have to be careful about the counterattacks they can create."
Fàbregas, unlike many of his team-mates, has yet to go all the way in Europe's premier club competition. The Spanish international was part of the Arsenal side which lost to the Azulgrana in the 2006 showpiece in Paris and three years later came unstuck against Manchester United FC in the semi-final.
It is something he is desperate to put right. "This is the competition we all want to win," he added. "I was close a few years ago and it didn't happen, so to win it in my first year with Barcelona would be a dream."
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