Wednesday 18 March ~
All the back pages of the tabloids feature a picture of a young male in jeans and hooded top with a menacing look about him. The person looking like he belongs on Crimewatch is Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, accused last night of spitting at Hull assistant manager Brian Horton following a controversial FA Cup quarter-final tie at the Emirates Stadium. Hull manager Phil Brown is no stranger to tirades and he let fly after his side's 2-1 defeat: "I was there. I witnessed it," he raged. "Fabregas spat at our assistant manager. That's their club captain. Hopefully he's proud of himself. He spat at his feet."
Fabregas, who was not in the squad for last night's game, duly received a form of support from his manager Arsene Wenger, who quite characteristically claimed "I did not see anything". Wenger himself stormed down the tunnel at the final whistle, without acknowledging anyone from the opposition. He had taken plenty of notice of Brian Horton during the stormy game, however, with the pair almost butting heads on the touchline at one point.
The Arsenal midfielder has since released a statement categorically denying that he spat at Horton; if the FA are to conduct an inquiry they'll be needing a saliva swab from Horton's shoes pronto. This is not the first time that Fabregas has squared up to an opposing manager – he was once embroiled in a heated exchange with Mark Hughes after an Arsenal v Blackburn game when he expressed his disbelief that a team managed by an ex-player of his boyhood favourites Barcelona could employ such a physical style. Hughes accused him of disrespect (and could have added that he played alongside a clogger or two himself at the Nou Camp). Fabregas later apologised, saying that he was "very young and had a lot to learn".
The post-match dust-up inadvertently did a favour to referee Mike Riley who had controversially allowed Arsenal's winner, scored by William Gallas from an offside position. While Riley avoided being the main topic of debate in today's papers, his slip-up won't go unnoticed by the FA who will also be questioning the referee's decision to allow both keepers to wear green, the same colour as the match officials, in contravention of FA rules.
Putting the controversy aside, last night's result was significant for several other Premier League clubs who find themselves in both the relegation battle and the chase for a Europa League spot. Arsenal's victory guarantees that the seventh-placed team will be awarded a place in next season's revamped competition and any one of half a dozen sides could still plausibly claim it. Whether the future qualifier goes on to take the European fixtures seriously remains to be seen – to judge by prevailing attitudes, they might choose to rest key players to focus on the primary target of avoiding the drop. Miguel Anton