Resurgent Cesc Fabregas key to Chelsea’s title challenge

Cesc Fabregas seemed destined for the Stamford Bridge exit. Now, he is a vital player for Antonio Conte as Chelsea chase Premier League glory.

With the score at 1-0, and Crystal Palace looking more threatening, Antonio Conte looked to his bench to find someone who could keep Chelsea in front at Selhurst Park. On came Cesc Fabregas, just past the hour mark.

Slotting into what looked like a 3-man midfield with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, the Spaniard was tasked with keeping control of possession and allowing the defence some breathing space after consecutive Palace attacks. Fabregas’ first touch almost brought a goal, if only a wild attempt by Marcos Alonso had been better. But the game changed from that moment, and the substitute had perfected his manager’s instructions.

It has been an odd season for Fabregas. Usually one of the first names on the team sheet, the 29-year-old has had to settle for a bit part role. Becoming a common substitute would have been hard to accept for a regular first teamer. But Fabregas hasn’t even appeared from the bench often. In fact, before his start in the 3-1 win over Manchester City, he hadn’t played in a Premier League game for over 2 months. Conte was seeing something he didn’t like from him, and it showed with his team selections.

Fabregas had to be patient, waiting for his chance to prove his new manager wrong. That opportunity came against City as Chelsea found themselves trailing. The midfielder played a sublime ball onto the chest of Diego Costa, and soon enough, the Blues were level.

It was a key moment in the contest, one which ended in an eighth consecutive league win. Fabregas had proven he had a part to play in Chelsea’s title challenge. The question now was; how much?

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A week later, he found himself warming the bench again as the injured Nemanja Matic returned for the match against West Brom. As expected, Tony Pulis’ side were difficult to break down. Conte looked to Fabregas again to make a difference, and the Spaniard once again duly accepted the responsibility.

A looping ball over the top caused problems for the West Brom defence, as Costa took advantage and secured yet another win for Conte’s side. It wasn’t as pretty a set-up as the pass for the equaliser versus City but Fabregas could still claim a great amount of credit once again for inspiring a Chelsea victory.

The midweek trip to Sunderland would see him go one better. Named in the starting eleven as a reward for his mini-resurgence, Fabregas would curl home a right-footed effort late in the first half to give Chelsea the lead. Through a fantastic injury-time save by Thibaut Courtois, the Blues would hold onto the 1-0 lead and ensure their place at the top of the table for Christmas. A win at Selhurst Park would further confirm their status as title favourites.

Alan Pardew’s struggling side never really threatened, but their increase in possession in the second half meant Conte had to change something. Fabregas was chosen to retain the ball, and keep Chelsea in control. He made it look easy at times. His slick passing, and balls over the top to the advancing Eden Hazard and Costa were magnificent.

It’s no coincidence that shortly after his introduction, Chelsea had numerous chances to increase their lead. Kante had a shot parried, Marcos Alonso failed to convert three opportunities and Victor Moses, quiet in the first 45 minutes, seemed livelier when Fabregas entered.

Last month, it looked as if the Spaniard’s Chelsea career was coming to an end. Frozen out of any involvement with the first team, Fabregas must have been looking at his options come January when the transfer window re-opens.

Fast forward four weeks later, and the imminent departure of fellow midfielder Oscar all but confirms his stay at Stamford Bridge. Conte evidently trusts him again, realising that there isn’t anyone else in the squad who can control a game like Fabregas. He showed it at the weekend, and with N’Golo Kante’s suspension versus Bournemouth looming, he’ll likely have another chance to prove his worth. No-one can argue he doesn’t deserve it.

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