Cesc Fabregas, Walter GarganoTen years ago, Arsenal-Manchester United was arguably English soccer’s fiercest rivalry.

Arsenal’s eight-year trophy drought and a warming of relations between longtime managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger has taken much of the venom out of it. While United added to its trophy collection, Arsenal languished through a period of self-imposed austerity which saw key players leave for greener pastures near and far.

However, things could be headed back in the other direction. United was rocked in May when Ferguson retired. David Moyes replaced the legendary Ferguson in June, and much of the soccer world will watch closely as Moyes looks to maintain United’s high standards in 2013-14 and beyond. Meanwhile, Arsenal is ready to build on the excitement generated by its impressive end-of-season run by using its newfound financial muscle to add a number of what Wenger calls “spectacular” signings to its squad.

Many predict that the 2013-14 Premier League will be the most competitive in years, as at least four clubs — United Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea — enter the season with legitimate hopes of wrestling the title from United’s grasp. Enter Cesc Fabregas.

The Spanish midfielder is a Barcelona player, but that could change before the start of the season. He has failed to cement a place in Barcelona’s midfield over the last two seasons, and it is rumored that Barcelona is willing to sell him this summer. Fabregas insists he’s happy at his boyhood club and vows to stay and fight for his place. But he may not be in full control of his destiny.

On Monday, United made a £26 million ($39.3 million) transfer bid for Fabregas. Barcelona has yet to respond, but the bid represents the first pull in what could become a transfer tug-of-war between United and Arsenal. Should Barcelona accept any bid, it would indicate that the club doesn’t consider Fabregas to be an essential component of its future success.

If that’s the case, Fabregas, 26, will be forced to consider his own future prospects. Returning to England, where he played 303 games for Arsenal over eight years, is a viable option. He’s already familiar with the country and the way the game is played there. More important is the fact that his girlfriend and infant daughter live in London and plan to stay there. If Barcelona pushes him toward the exit door, his family and the Premier League will welcome him back with open arms.

At least three other clubs, Chelsea, Manchester City and Inter Milan, are thought to be interested in signing Fabregas, but the race (if one occurs) will most likely come down to United and Arsenal. Central midfield is seen as United’s weakest area, and Moyes reportedly wants Fabregas and Everton’s Marouane Fellani as reinforcements. United fans hope the prospect of winning trophies and playing with Robin van Persie again will entice Fabregas to Old Trafford.

The Gunners received first rights of refusal on Fabregas as part of the £25.4 million ($38.4 million) transfer that took him to Barcelona in 2011. If Barcelona accepts a bid from any club, it must alert Arsenal, who can then choose to match the offer and negotiate with Fabregas. Don’t expect Arsenal to sit idly by as its former captain joins United. The sight of another former hero moving to a domestic rival could cause widespread angst and negativity to creep back into the Arsenal camp. Wenger and much of Arsenal’s fan base believe those days have passed, and good times are just around the corner.

If Fabregas joins Arsenal or United this summer, the club that misses out on him will be left to rue a missed opportunity. Few players have his combination of talent, experience and upside. His resume includes one FIFA World Cup title, two UEFA European Championships and five major trophies won in club competitions. It’s rare for a player of his pedigree and age to become available at all, let alone for a price that won’t drain a club’s entire transfer budget. It goes without saying that Fabregas’ signing would improve United or Arsenal, and his signing could have a decisive effect on this season’s Premier League title race.

The pursuit of Fabregas is a good way to measure the off-field competition between the two clubs. The Gunners haven’t beaten United to the signature of a top player in ages. Arsenal’s financial restrictions prevented it from pursuing such transfer targets. That looks set to end as Arsenal directors boast about the club’s increased wage structure and transfer budget.

Also, it has been years since Arsenal could match United on the field. United earned 19 more points than Arsenal in the 2011-12 Premier League and finished 16 points ahead of its rival in 2012-13. Fabregas returning to Arsenal won’t close the gap on its own, but the combination of his arrival and the negative effects of Ferguson’s retirement could bring the two clubs within touching distance of each other.

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