Wenger waits until 11th hour for Cesc

ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger will take the unusual step of waiting until tonight’s pre-match warm-up before deciding whether captain Cesc Fabregas is fit enough to face Barcelona.

Wenger conceded yesterday that Fabregas, who has not trained since suffering severe bruising to his leg and knee at Birmingham on Saturday, is unlikely to recover in time to face his boyhood club.

But the Frenchman’s mood was lifted by better news regarding defender William Gallas and midfielder Abou Diaby, and, ahead of tonight’s Champions League quarter-final first leg, argued passionately that his team should not fear the holders.

Fabregas is as desperate to face the team he left for the Gunners aged 16 as Wenger is to field his star player, but the Frenchman is reluctant to risk the skipper ahead of a season-defining few weeks.

“We will give ourselves 24 hours more and we will assess the situation, but if the match were today, Cesc would not be able to play. Sometimes you do not want to take a gamble because 24 hours more can help,” he said.

“If he is full capacity, we will play him. The medical staff tell me there is still a chance he will be available, but that will be decided in the warm up, which tells you how late we will leave it.

“I would say 60 per cent against, 40 per cent for him playing. If he is not capable to play, I would not even put him on the bench.”

Gallas could be set for a shock return in defence alongside Thomas Vermaelen, who is backing from suspension, after the France centre-back returned to training following a calf problem, while Diaby is also available again.

Wenger’s side have been somewhat overshadowed by Barca in the build-up, however, with focus centring around the array of talent among the European champions, including Spain playmaker Xavi and arguably the finest player on the planet, Lionel Messi. But Wenger said: “I do not deny their quality, because Barcelona have an exceptional team, but we are an exceptional team as well.

“We have, of course, to cancel their strengths, but Barcelona will have the same problem. They are an individual and collective threat, but so are we. “I am confident we can respond to the expectation of all people who love football, but also our fans because they want us to do something special and we want to deliver that.

“If we produce the best performance, then we can we can beat any side in the world.”

MUCH has been made of Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas playing against their beloved former teams, but links between the Gunners and Barcelona run far deeper than just those two players.

Tito Vilanova, now Barcelona’s assistant manager, once coached an all-conquering youth team that included Fabregas, Pique and Messi. Even by Barca’s standards that team is considered exceptional, and beat older teams to win the league.

Gerard Pique grew up alongside Fabregas: they played together in the boys’ and youth teams before Cesc joined Arsenal and Pique Man United. Now back at his boyhood club, the classy defender has picked up the superb nickname ‘Piquenbauer’.

Lionel Messi lined up alongside Fabregas and Pique in a vintage Barca youth team, after being plucked from Argentina aged 13. Has since won every honour going and 34 goals this season have strengthened his claim to be the best in the world.

Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s prodigious manager and former midfield fulcrum, was idolised by the young Fabregas. Won the treble in his first season but is thought to fancy managing in England and has been touted as a successor to Arsene Wenger.

Yaya Toure, the beef in Barca’s midfield, was passed up by Wenger after a 2005 trial and has been linked with N5 since. He grew up in the same youth team as brother Kolo, the ex-Arsenal star, and current Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Eboue.

Alexander Hleb spent three years at Arsenal and, after initially failing to convince, became a key player. He left for Barca in 2008 but has failed to establish himself at Camp Nou and is currently on loan at former club Stuttgart.