FA Cup semi-final Venue: Wembley Stadium Date: Saturday, 18 April Kick-off: 1715 BST Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC London 94.9 FM, DAB & online; Text commentary on BBC Sport website & mobiles
By David Ornstein
If anyone doubted the value of Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal or Michael Essien to Chelsea, 2008-09 might well go down as the season that they became almost priceless to their clubs.
Between them, Fabregas and Essien have missed over nine months of the season through injury and, without them, their clubs have suffered dearly.
At one stage Arsenal could not buy a win and suffered intense criticism as they struggled to keep pace with the Premier League's leaders Liverpool and Manchester United, let alone mount a title challenge.
Chelsea's slump in form resulted in a change of manager for the fourth time since 2004.
But both sides have turned the corner in dramatic fashion to reignite their bids for silverware and, by no coincidence, it is Fabregas and Essien who are spearheading those assaults.
On Saturday the sides meet in the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley and with two of their most influential stars fit and refreshed, the stage could be set for a classic encounter.
Essien is more physical and powerful than Fabregas but Fabregas is better tactically and has greater ability and movement - if you could take both players and make one player out of them, that would be the perfect player
Former Arsenal and Chelsea midfielder Emmanuel Petit
"Big players make the difference at big moments and on big occasions," former Arsenal and Chelsea midfielder Emmanuel Petit told BBC Sport.
"If you saw Fabregas in the first leg of Arsenal's Champions League quarter-final against Villarreal, it wasn't his best game but with one touch he gave the perfect pass for Adebayor to score a great goal.
"If it wasn't Fabregas on the ball at that moment I couldn't imagine any other player doing that because they don't have the same vision or technique.
"It's similar with Essien. Since returning he has scored an important goal against Juventus, another at home against Manchester City and dominated Steven Gerrard in Chelsea's Champions League quarter-final first leg at Liverpool."
Fabregas' telling contribution against Villarreal arrived in just his second match back following three months out with knee ligament damage, while Essien's crucial goals against Juventus and Manchester City came in his first two starts after six months on the sidelines, also with a knee injury.
The pair have faced each other on six occasions already but with Fabregas currently being deployed in a more advanced position and Essien occupying his preferred holding role, two of the world's leading midfielders are set to go toe-to-toe for the first time.
Direct comparisons are sure to be drawn before, during and after the match, but Fabregas and Essien are two very different players from equally divergent backgrounds.
Fabregas was born in the Spanish coastal town of Arenys de Mar, just north of Barcelona, and from the moment the young Catalan could walk, his mother Nuria claims he was interested in playing with nothing other than a ball.
After showing remarkable promise in his school teams, Fabregas joined nearby club Mataro, where he was discovered by Barcelona youth team coach Rodolf Borrell.
Matero tried hard to hold onto their boy by hiding him - Fabregas was substituted when club officials saw Borrell arrive to watch a pre-season friendly in 1996 - but his move to Barca was only a matter of time.
"Not only was he a fantastic player but he was one year younger than the rest," Borrell told BBC Sport. "Off the pitch he was very shy but on the pitch he was aggressive and highly competitive.
"One of the best qualities was his view of the game - he always chose the best option for the team and this is something you either have or you don't.
"He then had the technical quality to make an excellent pass - short, medium and long distance. A lot of people have one but not all three. Cesc had all of them."
Playing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes at Barca's La Cantera academy, Fabregas built his early reputation around style and technique, idolising Pep Guardiola and wearing the number four shirt like his hero.
"When Cesc was in his second year here his parents started a process of divorce," said Borrell. "His mother called to tell me and at the start of the next week he was a little bit upset and you could see it in training and during the matches.
"I knew his idol was Guardiola so I went to first-team training, explained the situation to him and asked if he could give me a shirt dedicated to Cesc.
"So Guardiola took a shirt, wrote a long message on in and dedicated it to him. The next day I told Cesc I knew what his parents were going through and when he started to cry I presented him the shirt. It is something he still remembers."
Essien, four-and-a-half years older than Fabregas, was also generating attention as he developed into a menacing young defender whose game was based on power and strength, which would later prompt team-mates to nickname him the "The Bison".
Growing up in the central Ghanaian town of Ewutu Bwajiase, he would play street football with friends during the week before competing in eight or nine matches every weekend.
"As a child you play in the streets and alleys and when the older players hear you are a good player they want to teach you a lesson," said African football expert Ibrahim Sannie.
"But the younger boys relish the chance to play against them to show they are good enough, and that experience has carried Essien to where he is today.
"Even though he is good on the ball his key characteristics are strength and power and that definitely comes from his beginnings."
Essien earned a scholarship to St Augustine's College, a highly respected boarding school in Cape Coast, where he studied hard and was granted permission to play for local teams at weekends.
After graduating from St Augustine's his game was developed at Liberty Professionals, but a move to French side Bastia in Corsica would soon await.
Interview - Cesc Fabregas
"Going to Europe early did a lot of good for him; his talent was honed and he was taught about discipline, on-field responsibilities and tactics," said Sannie.
Essien was used anywhere across the back four but mainly at centre-half. That was until an injury to a team-mate meant he was asked to play in central midfield and he never looked back.
Work permit complications prevented a move to Manchester United - the team Essien supported as a child - where he might have become the long-term successor to his role model Roy Keane.
Instead the Ghanaian ended up at Lyon and the two years he spent with the French club saw him excel as a dynamic, driving, box-to-box midfielder and his performances in Ligue 1 and the Champions League resulted in a £24.4m move to Stamford Bridge in August 2005.
A deeply religious person, Essien spends a lot of time and money on charitable commitments in Ghana as well as helping friends and family financially. He is particularly close to his mother Aba.
"Essien was the one boy among five girls so he has always been a mummy's boy," said Sannie. "Aba listens to radio every morning to hear news about him and if they say something she doesn't like she rings in to complain.
"If there's anything wrong with his mother his mood will change. He was once with the national team and got a phone call when he was eating to say his mother was not well. All of a sudden his mood changed, he stopped eating and became edgy.
Inside Sport - Michael Essien
"The last time he took a penalty kick he missed and his mother was taken to hospital after collapsing. For the sake of his mother he will not take a penalty kick again."
Fabregas' arrival in England came by a less circuitous route.
Unable to sign a contract with Barcelona until the age of 16, he agreed a free transfer to Highbury in 2003 having just won the golden boot and most valuable player awards at the 2003 Under-17 World Championship.
"We were very sad because everybody knew he was a fantastic player," said Borrell. "But if you had told anyone that in one year at Arsenal his progress would have been so great they would have not listened to you.
"He is an excellent player with high qualities but the way he developed in Arsenal has been just incredible. You just don't see that sort of thing.
"Cesc is now one of the most complete players in the world. He might not have the technical ability of Xavi or Iniesta but they don't have as much capacity to defend and Cesc can play in more positions."
Yet for all Fabregas' sublime midfield interventions, the Spaniard has won just one trophy with Arsenal - the 2005 FA Cup - while, in contrast, Essien has helped Chelsea win the Premier League title in 2006, as well as the FA Cup and Carling Cup in 2007.
Both players have suffered the pain of reaching and losing Champions League finals - Fabregas in 2006 when Arsenal lost to Barcelona and Essien last year when Chelsea lost to Manchester United - while the Spaniard helped his country win Euro 2008.
"Essien is more physical and powerful than Fabregas but also has great technique," said Petit. "Fabregas has greater ability and movement and is tactically better.
"But if you could take both players and make one player, that would be the perfect player."
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