Sunday, January 26, 2014

As a Mata of fact

I'm fairly confident that when Joni Mitchell wrote her ode to urban development, Big Yellow Taxi, she gave the minimum consideration to the possibility that the line "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/Til it's gone" would end up in a piffling blog post about a football transfer. it has.

Anyway, the matter of Juan Mata has prompted something of an existential crisis amongst Chelsea fans: is the club paving paradise and putting up a parking lot by selling the the 25-year-old creative midfielder?

News that Manchester United is to pay a club record £37 million for the Spaniard has prompted the inevitable collective swallowing of objects hard and jagged amongst the Chelsea faithful (who, according to the London Evening Standard "reacted furiously").

Just what logic lies behind selling a gifted player to an arch-enemy that is merely down on its luck? One newspaper columnist has even suggested on Twitter that Chelsea should, instead, be applying even more boot pressure to United's throat, rather than potentially easing it with Mata's sale. After all, this won't be like loaning Lukaku to Everton and allowing him to do all the damage he can to everyone but his parent club.

Rational, slow-breathing logic says otherwise. In fact, more considered opinion says that Chelsea is taking a morally superior position by breaking one of the taboos of high-end football in selling top talent to a top rival. There is something decidedly gentlemanly about it, with the 'new' conciliatory José Mourinho doing a professional favour for David Moyes. I doubt the snarling, conspiratorially-spooked Mourinho would have been capable of sanctioning such a sale during his first spell in charge at Chelsea.

"We are not afraid of his going there to do very well for United. We want him to go there and be happy to do very well for United," Mourinho said on Friday. "We hope he does well. We are convinced he's going to do well. Obviously, when we play him, we're going to try to win and he'll do the same, but the reality is that everybody in this club, the owner to the last man, wish him the very best."

Yes, you did read that. And, yes, Mourinho did say that. Scholars will spend decades trying to figure out whether this was more Mourinho doublethink.

It has been clear, however, that Mata would never be an easy fit in Mourinho's system at Chelsea. Which is a shame. His 2011 signing from Valencia gave the club the sort of creative ingenuity not seen since Gianfranco Zola hung up his No.25 shirt. In fact, if I was to be honest, Chelsea had been somewhat starved of such mercurial guile in the original Mourinho era, and in the subsequent attempts by various managers to ply the sort of sexy, Catalan football Roman Abramovich so coveted (and indeed coveted Barcelona's former manager to do so).

Mata's arrival, under the Villas-Boas regime, may have been intended to give Fernando Torres much needed delivery, and from a compatriot too. But it soon became apparent that he was more than just Jeeves to Torres' Wooster. Making his debut against Norwich in a late August fixture, he came on as a substitute for the uninterested Florent Malouda and scored Chelsea's third goal in stoppage time.

Such heroics tend to seal your reputation with fans. We still sing of Zola's substitute appearance in the 1998 Cup Winner's Cup Final, coming off the bench and scoring within 30 seconds. Come to think of it, we still sing of Dennis Wise equalising against Milan in the San Siro. We'll take our pleasures as they come.

The fickle nature of football fans is well known. We take pity on the most unlikely of causes, while ignoring more obvious - or even worthy - candidates for our affection. Mata didn't take long to demonstrate his appeal. He had Zola's footballing wit, to some degree he had Zola's personality. He's an intelligent player, whose blog posts and Facebook videos have showcased a counter-cultural footballer who engaged himself in London life in a manner more endearing than just bouncing off the walls of Chinawhite whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Mata confirmed his status at Chelsea by being named Player of the Year by fans at the end of his first season. Indeed, nine days after receiving the award he underlined his popularity by providing the vital assist that allowed Didier Drogba to score the goal that won Chelsea the Champions League. He won the same award for the 2012-13 season, adding the Players' Player of the Year award into the process.

And then came Mourinho. Quite what it was that placed Mourinho and Mata so far apart from the beginning is still not clear. There is some strong suggestion - from Mourinho himself - that Mata's weakness is his inability or willingness to cover as much of the park as Oscar, who replaced him as the go-to-guy for central midfield attack.

There's no glossing over the fact that Mata - by all accounts just a genuinely likeable character - has been unhappy warming the bench as the outsider of Mourinho's preferred midfield triumvirate of Oscar, Hazard and Willian. The uncharacteristic flounce when substituted against Southampton on New Year's Day said it all (though, to be fair, he hadn't been having the best of games). Even seeing him warming up on the Stamford Bridge touchline last Sunday during the Manchester United game had a 'What's the point? I'm not going to get a game anyway...' shrug about it.

But from this Chelsea fan, at least, good luck to him. Usually there is nothing worse than an out-of-favour player bitching and moaning from the sidelines about a lack of opportunities. Usually they're sidelined because, simply, they're crap, have become crap, or are Winston Bogarde. Mata isn't any of those things. Moreover, he has kept his dignity and remained professional.

Recognition of that professionalism has been rewarded by a gentlemanly, though clearly lucrative (for Chelsea) transfer to David Moyes' moribund-looking team.

It's a win-win-win-win situation: football gets to see a top talent playing regularly again, Mata gets the spotlight for his World Cup ambitions, Manchester United get a player who might spark those around him to play more like champions, and Chelsea can sit atop the moral high ground, banking the money.

True, Chelsea have handed over a brilliant player who could have become essential to Mourinho's plans, but for now he's in charge of a team over-blessed with midfielders, ironically, much like Manchester United was some years ago when they were branded 'Midfield United'. Clearly, Chelsea can afford to lose one. It remains to be seen whether Mata is the right one.

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