Spanish teenager Cesc Fabregas outshone the great Patrick Vieira in Tuesday's meeting of Arsenal FC's past and present central midfielders.
Patrick Vieira had appeared uncomfortable taking centre stage on his return to Highbury; Cesc Fabregas was happy to steal it from him. The midfield contest between Arsenal FC's past and present would play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of this tie. Fabregas tipped the balance firmly in Arsenal's favour.
Much has been made of the wisdom of Arsène Wenger's decision to sell Vieira to Juventus last summer. Fabregas, Wenger said, was ready to take his place. One match was not going to conclude the debate, but as Fabregas seized the moment in front of an adoring Highbury, Wenger's gamble appeared well worth taking. As anticipated, Vieira was warmly received. A chorus of "Vieira" broke out round the ground and the 29-year-old applauded the gesture. Come kick-off though, and Vieira's first foul conceded on Fabregas, he was just another player in Juve's iconic black and white.
In contrast to his domination of this arena over nine seasons as an Arsenal player, here Vieira ceded ground, lying deep in front of his back four and watching for the chance to thrust out a leg and intercept. Not until the 30th minute did the ex-Arsenal captain truly find his stride. He dispossessed Aleksandr Hleb in his own half and after releasing the ball, instinctively tore upfield to join the attack. The move, however, broke down and he was quickly back in support of his defence.
Fabregas, a teenager up against a pair of old masters in Vieira and Emerson, stepped forward. On 16 minutes, his late surge into the box cut out both players as he latched on to Robert Pirès's back-heel. Fabregas dragged his shot wide, but Arsenal had found the way through to goal. Against Real Madrid CF, Fabregas's patience on the ball had bought Arsenal valuable time and unsettled Madrid's rhythm. Here again he refused to be rushed or put off his game by a more physical Juve. Again he was neither intimidated nor overawed. Emerson and Vieira stayed close together, Fabregas looked to pass his way through them, and soon he was dictating the pace of the match.
Five minutes before the interval he blew it wide open. Vieira was the unwitting fall guy, losing possession to Pirès on the halfway line. He was still on the floor as Arsenal broke with the sort of speed he would have known so well from his time at Highbury. Pirès played the ball to Thierry Henry whose pass picked out Fabregas's run into the area. The 18-year-old, enjoying his first full UEFA Champions League campaign, shot beyond Gianluigi Buffon.
Fabregas had pierced Juve's armour; in the second half he applied pressure to the wound. Taking advantage of Vieira's deep position he pressed further forward in support of Henry, his confidence feeding through this young, vibrant side. He teed Henry up for one attempt that Buffon palmed away, then had a crack at goal of his own. Again only Buffon prevented the Serie A leaders falling further behind.
Vieira was being bypassed in midfield. Cheers when he fluffed his pass, then again when his frustration spilled over and he was booked for a foul on José Antonio Reyes which ruled him out of the return in Turin next Wednesday. As Vieira's influence waned, Fabregas's grew and he crowned a superb display with 21 minutes to play, sliding the ball across the box for Henry to double the score. "Who are you?" sang the Arsenal supporters at a dispirited Vieira. When the future is as bright as Fabregas paints it, why dwell on the past?