Mata isn't Juan of a kind… Chelsea star is closest to second coming of King Zola
11:27 GMT, 29 December 2012
Chelsea are not a team many people wish well, bar their own supporters. The club's players are even less popular.
John Terry and Ashley Cole regularly come in for dogs' abuse from the terraces, and the likes of Didier Drogba and Dennis Wise also drew ire with ease from opposition fans.
So when people found a diamond in what was widely perceived to be the rough, it was a shock. But lo and behold, Gianfranco Zola arrived from Parma in 1996 and delighted fans of all clubs week in, week out.
Mata of fact: The Spaniard has been in scintillating form this season
When he left SW6 in 2003 at the same time Roman Abramovich arrived, football fans in England were sad. Zola's expression on the pitch, his joy and skill and smile all drew much admiration, with little venom in response.
If a football player becomes extremely popular there is often a backlash from people who become fed up of hearing about them. See Jimmy Bullard and Mario Balotelli for details. Even Premier League legends like Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry have their detractors.
Zola didn't, and seemed like he was one of a kind. But then in the summer of 2011, while Chelsea was under the stewardship of Andre Villas-Boas, a young man by the name of Juan Mata arrived.
Much of the talk around Stamford Bridge was concerned with how, where and if Mata would fit in. If he would be strong enough or quick enough for English football. If this 23-and-a-half-year-old was worth the same number in millions of pounds which Chelsea paid for him.
Were the goals he scored for Valencia all he offered Videos on the internet suggested he had an eye for a pass and could whip a ball in. But then if you flicked through the right collection of YouTube clips you could wind up convinced that Jesper Gronkjaer was one of the finest crossers of the ball the top flight has ever seen.
Return of the King Zola spent seven years at Stamford Bridge
However, Mata made an instant impact
at the Bridge by scoring in his first match after coming on as a
substitute and his career has taken an upward trajectory ever since.
He soon became the key – and often
even the only – creative outlet to Villas-Boas' side. Mata forged
chance after chance for Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, while colleagues Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou floundered.
Mata consistently took the plaudits even as the team lost momentum and form, leading to Villas-Boas’ dismissal. Roberto Di Matteo took the reins but the Spaniard did not bat an eyelid, continuing as impressively as before.
He helped Chelsea earn the FA Cup and Champions League trophies in a successful albeit unorthodox year at the club. Across the board he was picking up nods and mentions, and, like Zola before him, rarely attracted a mean-spirited comment.
Five for free on Mata
1. It's not just on the pitch he's smart. Mata is studying for two degrees, one in marketing and one in sports science.
2. He is a home town hero. In Oviedo, Spain, they have opened 'Juan Mata Park' and his youth team decided to rename their stadium after him.
3. Mata runs his own social media accounts, including his Twitter feed, his Instagram account and his blog.
4. He rose to the fore at Valencia after current Manchester City star David Silva left.
5. Real Madrid allowed Mata to leave on a free transfer at the age of 19.
And the comparisons to Zola started
to gather pace. Even visually Mata, at 5ft 7, is only one inch taller
than the Italian and both players had heads which appear fractionally
too big for their diminutive frames.
Mata also plays with a smile – and
some of the artistry he is responsible for could only have been conjured
by someone with a deep love for the game.
As well as enjoying taking to the field, Mata watches a lot of football at home too – especially La Liga. He writes about it on his blog, ‘One Hour Behind’ – in Spanish and then again in near perfect English.
And if you read the comment section below each entry, you will discover the blog is a rare section of the internet which has avoided the usual mudslinging. It is hard to imagine another footballer who would receive such solely positive feedback.
But then Mata does little to enrage opponents or fans. Unlike many players of a creative disposition and slight build, he does not dive and often attempts to stay on his feet despite being pulled back.
During the year-and-a-half which has passed since Mata signed for Chelsea, he has virtually been playing non-stop, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to expose him as ‘one of those diving foreign types’.
But between August 2011, via the Champions League run, Euro 2012, the Olympics and the new Premier League season, until today, Mata has only brought delight to football fans.
From the preciseness of his passing, to its scope and incisiveness, to some of the strikes he has to his name, here is a rare thing. A footballer as superb as he is likeable.
And this season he can lay claim to being the finest in the top flight. When he returned from the Olympics he was visibly tired and was sent on a two week break. After he returned, he has been unstoppable.
All action: Mata followed Champions League glory with victory at the Euros
'It was just common sense to give him
a break and the way he’s performing suggests it was very welcome by his
body and his mind,’ said Di Matteo.
'Juan Mata is a very intelligent man and I talked to him about this idea; he bought into it and saw the benefits of it.'
His poise and balance are as good as they have always been, but what has really improved is his eye for goal (see below to find out why).
Mata already has 13 goals and 14 assists this term in 28 games, compared to 12 and 20 in 54 respectively last year, in all competitions for Chelsea. Essentially that means he has made a key contribution to a goal in every single one of his matches this season, bar one.
Mata stats… 2011-12
Games played: 54
Minutes played: 4075
Minutes per goal: 339.6
Total shots: 82
Shots on target: 44
Shot conversion: 15%
Yellow cards: 3
Red cards : 0
Mata stats 2012-13
Games played: 28
Minutes played: 2201
Minutes per goal: 169.3
Total shots: 43
Shots on target: 24
Shot conversion: 30%
Yellow cards: 1
And he has adapted seamlessly to life under Rafael Benitez. His superb goal against Norwich on Boxing Day was yet another flash of magic which won Chelsea a match.
He has even praised Chelsea's interim coach without drawing fire from sceptical Blues fans who remain at loggerheads with the club over his appointment.
Ask fans at Carrow Road who the best player on the pitch was at the weekend, and they will tell you the answer was Juan Mata. Visit any of the stadiums Chelsea have played at this season, ask the same question, and you're likely to receive the same response.
Chelsea were blessed with one outstanding – and widely appreciated – talent in Zola. Mata is well on his way to emulating the little magician. Quite a few Chelsea fans will tell you he’s done it already.
How has Mata's productivity increased so significantly this year
Mata described Drogba’s departure from Chelsea as an electric shock and said the club have had to work hard to adapt to life without the talismanic striker. Mata’s game has certainly adapted.
In 2011-12 he was often deployed in attacking position on the left, to supply the ball aerially for the Ivorian. This meant Mata was not always in a useful position to add to his own goal tally. But when Di Matteo took over from Villas-Boas he began to play Mata more centrally, where he improved.
At the start of this season Mata was picked by Di Matteo on the right, with Oscar in the middle and Eden Hazard on the left. This gave him the chance to cut inside and shoot from a central position with his favoured left-foot, as well as supplying through-balls to Fernando Torres.
Man of the moment: Mata scored a stunner in the victory over Norwich
Since Benitez has arrived he has selected Victor Moses on the right wing and pushed Mata into the middle again, where he is arguably at his most effective and creative. His goals against West Ham and Norwich came as Mata sprang from this area of the pitch.
Frank Lampard’s incredible goal-hauls for the Blues have often led people to believe his eventual departure will be a massive blow for Chelsea. While he will be missed, Mata’s contribution will ensure it is only for sentimental reasons.