Man United: Could Juan Mata Be Moyes' Eric Cantona?
Walking down Sir Matt Busby Way towards the home of the champions on Tuesday evening, for Manchester United's match against Cardiff City, it was impossible not to be struck by the change in atmosphere amongst the fans, compared to the last time we made that pilgrimage.
Then, as we approached a League Cup semi final against Premier League strugglers, Sunderland, there was a distinct sense of foreboding hanging in the air at the prospect of having another dismal home performance stretched out before us.
The Cardiff match was different. Feeling the buzz of excited expectancy amongst the crowd was like being reacquainted with an old friend. It feels like an age since we have looked forward to a match with so much relish, even lowly opposition having felt like formidable challengers in recent weeks, so low have confidence levels sunk.
It's amazing what the signing of a new player can do to the mood around a club, particularly one whom we have admired from afar for so long, working his magic for one of our rivals and, though his performance was relatively understated, the lift Juan Mata has provided, at a particularly pivotal time, is palpable.
Having immediately taken note of how much he suited the red of Manchester United, the number eight shirt fitting him like a glove, the second thing that stood out was Mata's small stature. United fans have waited a long time for a diminutive Spanish midfielder to call their own, and his presence on the pitch provided immediate reassurance, reminiscent of a certain diminutive Englishman we have found it impossible to replace since his second retirement at the end of last season.
This was not a barnstorming debut of the sort we recall from Wayne Rooney's memorable night against Fenerbahce, but then Juan Mata is not the barnstorming type. He's cool and calm, playing with the nonchalant, unflustered air of a man casually sipping Martinis in a swanky bar.
He provided a few glimpses of his skills, as silky as some of his most stylish suits and, even when some of the things he tried didn't quite come off, it was refreshing to see a United player displaying the confidence and character to give them a go. It's also worth bearing in mind that he is short of match-time this season, so it is surely safe to expect such attempts to be executed with increasing success with the passing of time.
Mata could not mask United's other glaring deficiencies, and it would be unfair to expect him to do so. There is still a gaping hole in the centre of midfield, for example, and it certainly isn't Phil Jones-shaped.
Yet Mata may just provide the kind of inspiration that Eric Cantona did upon arriving at the club all those years ago. That is the hope, if not everyone's expectation, and it was wonderful to see him, having been given (or simply taking for himself) reasonably free reign, popping up all over the pitch, hungry for the ball, perhaps a little too eager to impress at times, though that can be forgiven, in the circumstances.
A player like Juan Mata needs movement around him, which is something that has been sorely lacking from the champions' play so far this term. The way he flitted like a phantom into space that hadn't appeared to exist against Cardiff, though, was a joyous sight to behold. It will take time for him to build relationships with his new teammates of course. Nevertheless, there were already tantalising glimpses of mouth-watering possibilities on show here.
Having been humiliated in a penalty shoot-out against Sunderland less than a week before this match, there had been a rising tide of anger bubbling dangerously close to the surface. Many muttered Moyes' name with mutinous indignation as they sloped through the rain after the match that night, their faith in the new manager evaporating like a puddle on a scorching day.
Victory on Tuesday, albeit against a plucky but poor opposition, meant that the walk back down that famous street, that bears the name of the man who re-built this great club after the Munich disaster, was filled with hope rather than anger; the hope that David Moyes' rebuilding process starts here. With Juan Mata.