Fabregas is Chelsea's new Lampard
The video evidence isn't exactly conclusive, but that rarely seems to matter when Jose Mourinho is concerned. Opinions are invariably strident and polarised. Did he try and kick a prostrate Cesc Fabregas in a 2011 Clasico? Many believed he did.
Three years later, Mourinho directs compliments rather than kicks at the midfielder. On Monday, he devoted a eulogy in a cramped room in a corner of Burnley's Turf Moor ground to Fabregas, praising the 27-year-old for his football brain, his ability to dictate and change the tempo of a game and his ability to improve others around him, especially Nemanja Matic.
It was a natural response to an outstanding debut, yet Mourinho and Fabregas still seem unlikely allies. They appear ideological opposites: Real Madrid and Barcelona, Chelsea and Arsenal, Portugal and Spain. The battle lines were drawn. The Camp Nou philosophers don't play for the arch-pragmatist. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's disciples don't end up in a Mourinho team.
Except that Fabregas has. Perhaps it was the only option available to a strangely unwanted talent: rather than replacing one of his heroes as Barcelona's premier playmaker, he was shunted aside to make way for Ivan Rakitic. Wenger opted not to re-sign his former captain, preferring to raid Catalonia for Alexis Sanchez. Manchester United claimed, even if it was an attempt to spare their blushes after Fabregas eluded them for a second successive summer, that they were no longer interested. So Chelsea it was.
An old enemy was no gamble, Mourinho felt. "When the players are your first choice, it is very difficult to make a mistake and Fabregas was our first choice for that position," he said at Turf Moor.
The two strands to the argument are equally significant. The Portuguese likes to reduce the element of risk, both in the transfer market and in matches. He prefers to sign the finished article -- as Mourinho himself has noted, his summer recruits Fabregas, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis are all aged between 25 and 30 -- and the 27-year-old provides the closest to a guarantee of any of them, both because he has performed to a high standard for longer and because he is accustomed to the Premier League's particular demands.
The Portuguese's last three words -- "for that position" -- highlighted his decision to install Fabregas at the heart of his midfield. The subsequent dig at Barcelona for using the Spaniard as a false and more conventional No. 9, a winger and a No. 10 may have been typical. Nevertheless, it has some truth. He was a deluxe odd-job man at his hometown club. He takes centre stage in his new side.
His destiny has changed. Earmarked as the new Xavi, he has instead become Frank Lampard's successor. Two of the dominant midfielders of their eras were linked by the epic Barcelona-Chelsea Champions League ties and divided by their ethos and end product. One controlled games, the other decided them. The Spaniard was the ideologue for a brand of football that changed the world game. The Englishman simply set about becoming more and more prolific within its existing framework.
Fabregas may have idolised Xavi, but instead of becoming another totem of tiki-taka, he is a Spanish-English hybrid. He was toughened up in the Premier League and absorbed some of its attitudes. Perhaps he could be a little too impatient, a bit too direct for Barcelona (and maybe only for them: this is relatively speaking). Growing up competing with Lampard and Steven Gerrard, he absorbed the importance of goal-scoring midfielders.
His career club tally stands at 99, more than Xavi, seven years his senior, has managed. Lampard's tally is an extraordinary 251. Perhaps it was an awareness of the numbers, perhaps an attempt to relieve the burden on his new recruit and perhaps his sentimental fondness for a man who -- statistically and perhaps actually -- is Chelsea's greatest player, Mourinho tried to spare Fabregas from comparisons with the 36-year-old. "There are no other Frank Lampards in the world of football," Mourinho told Sky Sports. "No other midfielders score so many goals."
Perhaps not, but if the ultra-productive Lampard embodied Mourinho's first Chelsea team, Fabregas has a similar arithmetical appeal. Factor in his 148 career assists and the numbers add up.
Fabregas played a part in each of Chelsea's three goals at Burnley, supplying the final ball for two. The difference with Lampard is that Fabregas combines artistry and efficiency. Consider the beautiful cushioned pass for Andre Schurrle's strike, fooling the static Clarets and read only by the scorer. Or, indeed, the defence-splitting backheel to Branislav Ivanovic before Costa equalised.
If Mourinho is most concerned about the eventual outcome, there was beauty in the process. Fabregas' creativity means that, in one respect, he helps compensate for Juan Mata's January departure. His fellow Spaniard was a consistent provider of goals in a way Oscar, who deposed him from the team, is not. The Brazilian has inherited Lampard's No. 8 shirt, if only because the returning Didier Drogba has elbowed him out of No. 11. But whatever number he wears, and while Fabregas ought to help alleviate Mata's sale, he is Chelsea's new Lampard. Which, for the Arsenal fans who used to adore him, represents something of a kick in the teeth, courtesy of Mourinho.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.