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Cesc Fabregas shines on rare start in Chelsea's win over Middlesbrough
Last Updated: 09/08/17 10:49am
Cesc Fabregas delivered a reminder of his value to Chelsea with a first-class playmaking role in the Blues' 3-0 Monday Night Football win over Middlesbrough.
The Spaniard has been limited to just 11 Premier League starts this season, with Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte preferring the destructive powers of Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante in central midfield.
His absence has sparked transfer talk, with AC Milan reportedly interested in acquiring the former Arsenal and Barcelona ace.
However, with a muscle strain sidelining Kante on the day he was named Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year, Fabregas took centre stage at Stamford Bridge, and played a key role as the league leaders took another step towards title glory.
It underlined his importance: for all the brilliance of battling Kante, the finesse of Fabregas can be decisive, too.
"He is without a shadow of a doubt Chelsea's best passer of a ball from central midfield," said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville before kick-off. "Tonight, when they could have a lot of the ball, they're going to need his intricate passes. He unlocks tight defences."
Within a minute Fabregas was doing just that, clipping a pinpoint diagonal pass into Marcos Alonso's path in the penalty area for a shot which cannoned up off Brad Guzan and onto the bar. Five minutes later the pair combined again in similar fashion, with the wing-back this time driving his shot wide.
A heavy tackle from Adam Clayton followed but Middlesbrough afforded Fabregas far too much time and space throughout the first half, allowing the 30-year-old to orchestrate Chelsea's attacks from the midway point of the opposition half. He finished the game with 86 passes in the attacking half, 38 more than any other player.
He is without a shadow of a doubt Chelsea's best passer of a ball from central midfield. Fabregas unlocks tight defences.
"They've got to get someone on Fabregas," said co-commentator Alan Smith as the midfielder's influence became more and more apparent. "He's dropping into positions where he's got time to get his head up and cause all sorts of problems."
Eden Hazard was the next Chelsea player to latch onto a clipped through ball, dispatched like a quarterback by the Blues' No.4. Ironically Fabregas' most wayward effort of the opening period was when he was aiming to pass Hazard's cutback into the bottom corner of the Boro net, instead arrowing the ball wide of the post.
Diego Costa was not so wasteful on 23 minutes when Fabregas found him with a superb curled ball into the box. A deflection off Fabio may have initially denied Fabregas a 105th Premier League assist - which he was later awarded - but the creation of Chelsea's opener was all about their man in the middle, with Costa simply adding the finishing touch.
"The relationship between Fabregas and Costa is incredible," Neville said at half-time. Fabregas played more balls into the Chelsea striker than any of his team-mates in that opening 45 and could have teed him up for a second had he not put too much weight on one of his trademark chips into the area.
Inevitably, Fabregas had a hand in Chelsea's second, too, probing at the Boro backline with a couple of one-twos before shuttling the ball to the unmarked Cesar Azpilicueta, who produced a pass his team-mate would have been proud of to allow Alonso to find the net.
A wicked deflection almost diverted a second-half Fabregas drive into the Boro goal but it was a clean, crisp flick to Matic which led to Chelsea's third. Again unmarked, Fabregas' cool pass with the outside of the boot had the look of a man finding it all too easy.
Cesc Fabregas is the first player to reach double figures for assists in six different Premier League seasons
In all, Fabregas made 114 passes - 20 more than any other player on the pitch. His seven crosses were as many as all the other Chelsea players managed combined, while his 130 touches - 30 more than any other player - highlighted how he controlled proceedings from the first whistle to last.
"I feel the quality of my minutes, whenever I've been on the pitch, it's been fantastic this season," Fabregas told Sky Sports after a performance which backed up that belief. It seems remarkable his opportunities have been limited this term.
Conte is a manager who values organisation and athleticism - "We've been working hard, to be honest. A lot of running, a lot of tactics," Fabregas added when asked about his manager's training regime - but after a weekend which saw Tottenham and Liverpool fail to break down determined defences, the advantage of having the artistic Fabregas in the ranks was plain to see.
"It's been a difficult year for me," he said. "But I like challenges." Conte's challenge next season will be to continue to find an effective balance between the varied attributes of his midfield options.