As a Manchester United fan, rivalries tend to be at their bitterest when concerned with Manchester City and Liverpool, but in recent years, Chelsea have climbed their way up the enmity ladder. Down in large to some genuinely odious characters (John Terry, Ashley Cole, Roman Abramovich) and the fact they often seem to get one over on us, the boys from Chelsea have become one of our bogey teams.
However, rivalry aside, that doesn’t stop me admiring some of the gifted footballers plying their trade with the club, one of which stands about above all the others. With a sublime touch, a proclivity for creating moments of genius out of thin air, and more than a passing likeness to the Lord of the Rings’ Meriadoc Brandybuck, Juan Manuel Mata cannot simply remain unloved.
He may not get quite the star attention as Belgian wonderkid Eden Hazard does, nor is he truly appreciated to the full extent back in his homeland, but to fans of the Premier League, he is one of the most exciting players around. With Paul Scholes on the verge of retirement (again), Wayne Rooney not quite getting to grips with the playmaking role and Shinji Kagawa having been hampered by injuries, Manchester Utd have been a little sparse on creative injection.
From a pure technical point of view, there are few better in the top-flight of English football. Like many of the current Spanish maestros – Silva, Xavi, Iniesta – he benefits from a low centre of gravity and an extraordinarily good close control. He is Chelsea’s hub, with a good proportion of their attacking endeavours making their way through him. Dribbling, passing, shooting, vision, ingenuity – he has the complete package for a forward-thinking player.
Known for his dribbling prowess and agility on the ball, it is his ability to fashion chances for others that makes me so envious of Chelsea. In an international set-up that boasts pass-masters like Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, Mata’s ability at spotting and picking out a team-mate almost anywhere in the opposition’s half is criminally underrated. In his two seasons playing in the Premier League thus far he as amassed 32 assists. Imagine the combination he and van Persie would make? The Dutch striker has created a host of goals for himself in a Manchester United shirt, but with Mata picking him out from deep, the potential is mouth-watering. But then, it would be no more than conjecture.
Chelsea are a team I largely despise, thanks to the heavy-handedness of their owner, Roman Abramovich, the deplorable antics of some of their ‘role model’ players and their inclination to throw money at any football who’s had a half-decent season. Yet, that being said, Mata is one of the players who make Chelsea so formidable and, subsequently, enjoyable to watch.
I could never tire of watching his movement in the final third, constantly on the look-out for space to exploit, and his seeming ability to think a second ahead of the players around him. Much is made of David Silva’s instrumentalism to Manchester City, but for sheer conductorship, Mata has the edge over his compartiot. There are few finer ball-players in the current European game. And with 18 goals in all competitions for Chelsea, he has a clinical edge that the likes of Silva and Hazard haven’t found this season.
Manchester United may have had more struggles at the back than up top this campaign, but when they go head-to-head with Chelsea on Sunday, it’s not the likes of Ivanovic and Luiz I will be casting my eye over, great defensive players though they are. Instead, it’s the diminutive, fleet (not hairy) of foot Mata that I dearly wish would be lining up for the home side.