How much will Arsenal miss Fabregas upon his return to the Emirates?
Cesc Fabregas was musing at the weekend about Chelsea's imminent coronation. "It's been five years for [Chelsea] without winning the title; for me it's been 27 years, so I'd love to win it as soon as possible," he said. It has been 11 for Arsenal. Fabregas was at Highbury when Arsenal became champions in 2004. He had debuted in the League Cup but not the top flight.
He was too young to be an Invincible, too precocious to stay at Arsenal in the era of austerity. He is set to become the seventh former Gunner to win the Premier League in six seasons. Nicolas Anelka and Ashley Cole triumphed with Chelsea in 2010, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Kolo Toure with Manchester City in 2012, Robin van Persie with Manchester United 12 months later, and Nasri and Clichy again the past year. It used to be said every title-winning team had to include at least one Scot; now, seemingly, they must incorporate an Arsene Wenger wunderkind.
Perhaps the one consolation for the perennial top-four finishers is Chelsea cannot mathematically clinch the title on Sunday. The first return to the Emirates Stadium for Fabregas, once the embodiment of Arsenal, cannot conclude with those sorts of celebrations.
Yet even if Arsenal form a roadblock on the path to glory, it will only be temporary. Fabregas will realise an ambition in Chelsea blue. Wenger's disciple now sounds a firm believer in Jose Mourinho. An evangelist for the idealist has started praising the pragmatist.
Fabregas' first reunion with Arsenal contained arguably the pass of the season, a 50-yard, defence-splitting ball for Diego Costa to score a clinching second goal, yet there seems less flair and more functionality about the Catalan in his Chelsea incarnation. Now his principal job is as Costa's major supplier, and as Mourinho has said in the midfielder's defence, his assists have become rarer because the scorer isn't scoring.
He can still combine deftly and delicately with a technical talent in Eden Hazard, but Chelsea possess fewer like-minded souls than Arsenal did when he served as the commander-in-chief of a battalion of passers. Barcelona Lite served as a preparation for Barcelona before a sudden shift in ethos the past summer.
It need not have been the case. Arsenal had first refusal on Fabregas when he left the Camp Nou. They refused, prompting the thought that his love-in with Mourinho might be a marriage of convenience. The 27-year-old never stopped being the right player for Arsenal, but he was in the wrong position at the wrong time. Even Wenger, who has overloaded his squad with a particular type of player, wasn't in the market for another technical midfielder who coveted a central role; join the club -- or rather, don't.
It is why there are three pertinent comparisons to Fabregas in his old employers' ranks. Alexis Sanchez was the past summer's marquee signing, the man who commanded the funds that could have been used to re-sign the former captain. Mesut Ozil is now the creator in chief. Santi Cazorla is the deep-lying playmaker, the player who occupies the position Fabregas plays in for Chelsea, except when Mourinho grants him a more advanced role to strengthen the shield in front of the defence.
Sanchez and Fabregas can represent opposites. The Chilean is the finisher, the Spaniard the provider. The current Arsenal player has 14 league goals, the former one 16 assists. Sanchez's pace, versatility and, above all, ruthlessness in front of goal rendered him the player Wenger needed.
Ozil represents a more intriguing case. Real Madrid were willing to sell the German in 2013, whereas, as Manchester United discovered, Barcelona resisted offers for the Spaniard then. Had Fabregas become available a year earlier, would Wenger -- the man who brought Sol Campbell, Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann and Mathieu Flamini back to Arsenal -- have pursued another reunion?
Instead, Ozil has made the opposite journey to Fabregas. He was pivotal for Mourinho before becoming an expensive import under Wenger. Ozil's exploits for the Portuguese's Real Madrid, often delivering the final pass for Cristiano Ronaldo, prompted fanciful thoughts that Fabregas' path back to North London could be eased if Mourinho wanted to raid Arsenal for his former player; that could have freed up both funds and a spot in Wenger's side.
It was a hypothetical scenario that never materialised. Ozil has continued to tantalize and tease in two decidedly mixed seasons for Arsenal -- brilliant at times but frustrating at others -- but he has to operate in the opposition's half. It soon emerged that Mourinho didn't want a No. 10. He had different plans for Fabregas, installing him alongside Nemanja Matic at the base of the midfield.
Perhaps Wenger's former captain is an indirect influence on the Arsenal renaissance. Their form has improved since Cazorla joined Francis Coquelin in a central-midfield duo; without Fabregas, Wenger identified another Spaniard who could offer craft and graft in a part of the pitch often manned by more physically powerful players. Cazorla's small figure has long hidden a big heart.
While Ozil's recent excellence includes signs of a burgeoning relationship with Sanchez and while the Chilean is shaping up to be their best top-of-the-market buy since Thierry Henry, if Arsenal harbour few regrets that Fabregas plies his trade elsewhere now, it should be because of Cazorla.
He nevertheless arguably represents, along with Van Persie, the greatest Arsenal player of their Emirates Stadium years. His return has the potential to prove painful for the Gunners, as he closes in on both the elusive Premier League title and Thierry Henry's divisional record for most assists in a season.
There is a case for arguing Fabregas was a better player in his final two seasons at Arsenal. He is set to become a more successful one in his debut year at Chelsea. It is a Mourinho-esque trade-off, suiting a manager who measures merit in medals. That, of course, has never been Wenger's way.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.