The Heart of the Mata

Firstly – an apology for the hiatus in the ramblings of this column, caused by preparing for the Chelsea Supporters Trust Christmas Party, Christmas itself and flu, in that order.  Well, not really that order.  The flu manifested itself just before Christmas, set in on Christmas Eve and left me with an attack of the horrors on Christmas Night.  By Boxing Day I could barely stand up and, as a result, I was too unwell to return to London for the Liverpool game,  thus leaving Old Mother Baby with a clear field with regard the to the Christmas tuck.

So here we are in January, a traditionally depressing month, unless you’re glad to see the back of December.  January is full of earnest folk (or “Killjoys” as I prefer to call them), on diets, hammering the gym, and doing what I believe is called a “Dryathalon” – a totally unfathomable concept to the House of Baby.

This January is rendered particularly depressing by an unexpected turn of events at Stamford Bridge, this being the likely departure of Juan Mata for Old Trafford.  Since joining Chelsea in the summer of 2011, he’s made 135 appearances, scoring 33 goals and providing 58 assists.  He has won a Champions’ League winner’s medal, a Europa League winner’s medal, and an FA Cup winner’s medal. Whilst you couldn’t describe him as a cult player, and in spite of taking over two years’ to find him a (poor) song, he is genuinely well-loved by the supporters.  He appears to be a rounded individual, as can be seen from his blogs and Instagram account, taking full advantage of the cultural opportunities provided by the world’s greatest city.

So, how have we come to this?  The club’s Player of the Year two years running, and first choice under A*B, Robbie di Matteo and B*nit*ez, his career at Chelsea has undoubtedly hit the skids with the return of Jose Mourinho.  The Special One is building his team around Oscar, and has also embraced the work ethic of Hazard.  Even Torres, in a stop-start season blighted by a ban and a couple of injuries, seems to be flourishing under the tender care of the manager.  However, Mata’s undoubted skills appear to be not enough for Jose.  He doesn’t want someone who simply crafts a beautiful pass, or flies down the wing.   He wants someone willing to track back, to tackle, and to get his hands dirty, figuratively speaking. It doesn’t help that Mata’s infrequent starts have coincided with our stickier results.  With a more settled line-up and the omission of the little Spaniard, the team have developed a real momentum.

It’s entirely understandable that in a World Cup year, a player expecting to make the journey to Brazil with their national team will want to play first team football.  However, the biggest issue concerning Chelsea supporters is not the fact that Mata might leave, but his ultimate destination.  For most players Stamford Bridge is as good as it gets.  Not many go on to be more successful at another club.  If a player leaves Chelsea, it is generally because he is surplus to requirements.  Not since Ray Wilkins in 1979 have Chelsea sold a player at the peak of his career to Manchester United. However, these are all trends that could be totally bucked by the time we kick off our FA Cup 4th round game against Stoke on Sunday afternoon.  For many supporters, selling Mata to a despised rival is about as unfathomable as that Dryathlon I mentioned earlier, and there simply has to be an explanation for it other than acknowledging a player’s desire to be in Brazil in June.

So, as Loyd Grossman would say, let’s look at the evidence.

During what is already a legendary managerial career, Jose Mourinho has developed a reputation for not only being an extraordinary judge of a player, but also being able to get the best out of that player.  And in return, he inspires a devotion among his players, past and present, which has been a hallmark of his tenure at every club he’s managed at.  Jose has spotted something he doesn’t like in Mata’s game, and I believe that he feels he’s not going to be able to change it.  Mata is a turbo-charged version of Joe Cole.  The difference between Mata and Cole is that Joe knuckled down, and it is no coincidence that he had the best two seasons of his career under Jose.  So, that leaves Mata with a choice of staying at Chelsea and possibly missing out on further World Cup glory or leaving the club and making the plane to Rio.  Very well.  The club decide to help Mata, and also help themselves in the FFP stakes by selling him a big profit.  But to whom?  The staggering thing about the whole “Mata to OT” scenario has been what appears to be a complete lack of interest from any of the European giants for a major talent. There hasn’t been even a whisper of interest from cash-rich PSG, or either of the behemoths in his home country.

There is no doubt that, currently on their uppers as far as form goes, Manchester United could do with a shot in the arm.  The conspiracy theorists believe that having played the Salfordians twice this season, Juan is going north as Agent Mata, with a brief to do as much damage to the rival title bids from The Etihad and The Emirates as humanly possible.  But what happens next season? There is a real possibility that Mata could come back to haunt us.

There remains a final possibility.  Short of real menace up front, Chelsea made no secret last summer of their desire to add the out-of-sorts Wayne Rooney to their squad.  One wonders if Mata and Rooney are going to be the 21st century footballing equivalent of East and West swapping agents on an Eastern European border.   It would be hugely surprising if Rooney ended up at the Bridge in January, but with Eto’o being a one-season wonder along the lines of Weah, Ba and Moses not being fit for purpose and Lukaku still a work in progress, if the Mata deal does go through, then the start of 2014/2015 pre-season might just see Rooney and family house-hunting in leafy Surrey.

Chelsea FC have survived the sale of big stars before, and the foundations of Stamford Bridge are unlikely to fall around supporters’ ears with the departure of the Spanish wizard, but there is no doubt he’ll be hugely missed.  Thanks for the memories, Juan.

Early next week we’ll be taking a look at what 2014 might hold for Chelsea, including a preview of the Chelsea Pitch Owners AGM on 31st January.  In the meantime you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67.