By Greg Stobart
All the noises in public have played the right tune. Jose Mourinho insists Juan Mata is a “very important” player for Chelsea this season, the player himself has told the club’s in-house television channel that he ignores “rumours” and is happy at Stamford Bridge.
Yet the whispers started somewhere - apparently in Portugal - and have failed to go away. The suggestion is that, for whatever reason, Mourinho simply does not fancy Mata.
The Spaniard has been Chelsea’s player of the year in the last two campaigns and was in stunning form last term, scoring 18 goals and providing 34 assists in all competitions for the Europa League winners.
Yet he has been left on the bench as an unused substitute in three of Blues’ first four games of the season, including the goalless draw at Manchester United and the Uefa Supercup clash with Bayern Munich.
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So now Mata finds himself fighting for a place in the side against Willian, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle.
The suspicion is that the 25-year-old is no longer in the club’s first choice starting XI, that he does not fit in to Mourinho's plans for swift, counter-attacking football and the Portuguese is willing to cash in to strengthen the side in other areas - as long as Mata is not sold to a rival.
Privately, Mata grew concerned about the speculation during the summer - which first appeared in the Spanish and Portuguese press - but was relieved by guarantees from Mourinho that he remains a vital part of the squad.
While the former Valencia man is happy at Stamford Bridge and content with life in London, his mood could soon change if Mourinho continues to overlook him in a World Cup year.
After all, it was Mourinho himself who spoke of the danger of a player being “second choice” for his club when he publicly courted Wayne Rooney this summer. Mata has to be playing - and playing well - regularly if he is to feature in Vicente Del Bosque’s plans when Spain look to retain the World Cup in Brazil next year.
Chelsea stuck to their word this summer that Mata would not be sold as they resisted a bid worth more than £30m from London rivals Tottenham, while moves from Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid were also rebuffed.
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If Mata remains on the fringes of the Chelsea side, all those clubs will be sniffing around in January and again next summer. It is not often that a player of Mata’s supreme talents becomes ‘available’ for transfer and the Londoners would be sure to make a substantial profit on the £23.5m they paid for him in 2011.
The argument from within the Chelsea camp is that Mata returned to pre-season late after the Confederations Cup and lacked fitness at the start of the season after picking up an injury in the United States.
But if Mourinho really does consider Mata as indispensable, he will have to show it. So, too, will the club, with three years left on his £70,000-a-week deal and the player known to want a pay rise in recognition of his performances over the last two seasons.
If the Portuguese continues to ignore Mata, Chelsea supporters risk losing a firm fans' favourite. While Mourinho usually knows best, freezing out Mata would surely lead some Blues fans to question the manager's judgement.
Either way, Mata would be an instant starter for most clubs in European football. Last season, he was one of the Premier League's leading players along with Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez.
Unless Mourinho matches his actions with his words and puts Mata back in the fulcrum of his side, the speculation will only grow.