By James Goldman
Only when Cesc Fabregas trots out at Emirates Stadium next season in royal blue will the full horror of what Arsene Wenger has turned his nose up at hit home.
Arsenal and their fans really should be immune to it by now. The sight of a former player raising silverware in rival colours has become the norm but the thought of Fabregas embracing Mourinho, flashing a winning smile side-by-side with John Terry will sting like nothing else.
When Robin van Persie was sold to Manchester United for £24 million with less than a year remaining on his contract it represented good business for the selling club, some argued. When Samir Nasri was sold for an equally princely sum, the club were ridding themselves of a supposed troublemaker, while few begrudged Fabregas a return to his boyhood club after seven years of sterling service in north London.
That celebrated trio have since gone on to amass four league titles between them in three years, evidence enough to suggest there is simply no way of sugar coating Arsenal’s recent help-yourself sales policy.
In this instance Arsenal might not be selling Fabregas directly to one of their Premier League adversaries, but by opting against activating the buyback clause they were determined to insert in the Spaniard’s Barcelona contract they are displaying a lack of ruthlessness and ambition, Mesut Ozil aside, that has characterised their recent efforts in the transfer market.
The contrast between ambivalent Arsenal, who have forfeited the opportunity to build on the harmony and euphoria created by last month’s FA Cup triumph by signing one of Europe’s premier midfielders, and relentless Chelsea, who have opportunistically set about replacing the 200-goal sized void left in their midfield after Frank Lampard’s departure with purpose and clarity, really could not be greater.
Wenger cannot allow sentiment to cloud his judgement but there is no doubting this current Arsenal squad would be better equipped to challenge for the Premier League title with their former captain restored to his former home. Regardless of priorities, budgets and the circumstances of his exit the first time around, Fabregas would improve this Arsenal side and that really need be the Frenchman’s only consideration.
Arsenal are well stocked for creative midfielders, of course, but Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, for all their undoubted potential and ability, are yet to prove they are capable of lasting course and distance. Santi Cazorla turns 30 later this year, Tomas Rosicky is already 33 and Abou Diaby is now sadly a parody of himself, almost permanently injured.
Ozil, of course, is the great hope and it is his position that would be threatened, potentially undermined, by the return of Fabregas but competition for places is a reality of elite level sport and if the German is unable to contend with that pressure – the way he flounced out of Real Madrid and his performances for much of last season suggest that might be the case - then Wenger should be ruthless enough to deem him not fit for purpose, as Mourinho has with the likes of Juan Mata, David Luiz and Kevin de Bruyne.
There are plenty of gaps that need filling in this current Arsenal set-up with a new striker, replacement for Bacary Sagna, a back-up centre-half and goalkeeper, as well as a wide forward required to complete the jigsaw and with £100m to spend all of that should be attainable and there still be money left over for Fabregas.
The reality, however, is that Arsenal have passed up on the chance of signing a genuine world-class player who would improve their team, boost morale and disrupt the plans of several of their main rivals.
It is far too early for Arsenal fans to press the panic button but the fear will be that a failure to even register an interest in Fabregas will set the tone for another summer of dithering, derisory bids and long-winded sagas.
The FA Cup victory and Wenger’s renewed commitment means there is plenty of goodwill in the bank to sit alongside Arsenal’s growing cash reserves but neither the manager or chief executive Ivan Gazidis can afford to squander either. Do so and their gamble in ignoring Fabregas will almost certainly come back to bite them.