The 25-year-old Spanish maestro was undoubtedly Chelsea’s star performer last season under Rafael Benitez and Roberto Di Matteo before him. The former Valencia midfielder was a huge cog in the wheel the previous season when Chelsea won the Champions League and FA Cup under the caretaker Italian coach and he had a pivotal role in the Blues’ Europa League title last term.
However, with the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge this summer, the best attacking midfielder Chelsea have cannot get into the team – for reasons unbeknownst to the majority of the fans and press, Juan Mata is out of favour at the Bridge.
The manager has suggested, prior to his performance in Chelsea’s midweek League Cup victory over Swindon, that Mata needs to ‘adapt’ his game in order to earn his place. I doubt I’m alone in my firm belief that Mata has earned his place in the team by being the best player in it for two seasons.
Mata had the highest tally of assists in the Premier League last season – he scored 11 goals and made 17 assists for teammates in the league along – and he featured on no less than 64 occasions for the club across eight competitions, led by two different managers, in what was overall a difficult and testing season for the team and their fans.
Mata earned his first start in Mourinho’s team on Tuesday and recorded his first assist of the campaign – he hasn’t complained or made issue publicly with the boss over his exclusion from the team so far and he worked hard as he always does against Swindon.
Who knows whether he’ll start or feature against Spurs on Saturday – one thing’s for sure though, without him in the team, even if it’s for the first half of the game if he starts on the bench, or even if he plays 90 minutes whilst still lacking 100 per cent match fitness and top form, Spurs are the benefactors of that.
It won’t be plain sailing, mind you – in the Spaniard’s absence, Brazilian Oscar has been firing on all cylinders of late and Eden Hazard has been building momentum in his displays. Oscar has scored three goals so far this season and Hazard one with one assist to go with it but, incidentally, Chelsea’s strikers have been poor so far for the most part.
I happen to think it’s got a least partially something to do with Mata’s exclusion from the team – the strikers have been misfiring but they are also not getting the chances Mata provides for them and, as for this weekend’s London derby, Spurs stand to gain what is Chelsea’s to lose if Mourinho doesn’t play Juan Mata.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald