Arsenal season in balance after Fabregas gamble

LONDON - In the rarefied air of the quarter-finals of the Champions League, managers need to make big calls and Arsenal's Arsene Wenger rolled the dice on Wednesday with consequences that could make or break their season.

Such was the enormity of the challenge presented by European champions Barcelona that the Frenchman rushed central defender William Gallas back into battle and gambled on captain Cesc Fabregas's bruised limbs lasting the course.

Like the X-ray Fabregas underwent on what he feared was a cracked leg bone after his late penalty earned Arsenal an unlikely 2-2 draw in the first leg, the verdict on Wenger's decisions remains inconclusive.

Gallas looks like missing the rest of the season after the calf injury that had sidelined him since February returned while Fabregas, Arsenal's talisman and key to their hopes of staying in the Premier League title race, is now a major worry.

Add to that the calf injury to Andrei Arshavin that saw the Russian livewire substituted before halftime and Arsenal's hopes of ending their five-year trophy drought now look slim.

"I took a gamble but it didn't pay off and I regret it now," Wenger said of the decision to start with Gallas.

Fabregas, whose first-half booking means he was already ruled out of the return at the Nou Camp, was a rock for his side and managed to beat Victor Valdes from the spot after earning the penalty, but was wincing in pain straight afterwards.

With no more substitutions available for Wenger, his skipper hobbled through to the end of the game.

The Spaniard had only been declared fit on Wednesday morning after being injured at Birmingham the previous weekend and his courageous display against his old club could yet inspire Arsenal for one last push this season, although his absence over the coming weeks would be a body blow.

"You have to trust the way your players feel," Wenger said. "He had treatment in the morning and there was nothing medically wrong with him, he was ready to play. He showed fantastic mental strength not to give up after the booking.

"Cesc didn't give up. The whole team was mentally unbelievable. We kept going against a class opponent. I'm still convinced we can make life difficult for them in the second tie and we can still qualify."

Fabregas had no regrets, despite the realisation that he will not be available for next week's decisive second leg.

"For 85 minutes it was not a gamble to play. I knew in my mind I was not 100 percent and I knew in my mind there was something there," the Spaniard said.

"It was a gamble worth taking, it was an amazing experience, an amazing game and I will remember it all my life. This was the best team I have faced in my life."

After surviving, just, the mesmerising brilliance of Barcelona on Wednesday, Arsenal return to challenging Manchester United and Chelsea for the league title on Saturday with the more mundane visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

"We have to focus on that now before the Nou Camp," said Wenger.

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