By Liam Twomey
Perhaps the most telling moment of a drab Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge came in the 24th minute, when a Frank Lampard shot, unleashed more in hope than expectation, was deflected comfortably out for a corner to the sound of warm applause.
It was almost nothing yet, for the home fans, at least it was something. Chelsea’s first effort at goal, in fact, despite three-time Champions League winner Samuel Eto’o leading the line and almost £90 million of creative talent behind him. For much of the evening Basel survived not through defensive brilliance or outrageous luck, but mere organisation and discipline.
And as the hosts laboured, with every wayward pass, ignored run or costly misunderstanding, many observers found their minds returning to the same question, only to find it stubbornly impossible to answer: Why is Juan Mata, Chelsea’s best player of the past two seasons, sitting on the bench?
There are no shortage of theories to explain the Spaniard’s fall from favour. Throughout the summer and beyond, Mourinho’s relationship with Chelsea’s No.10 has been set against a backdrop of whispers about tactical indiscipline and poor defensive work rate, and even of tension resulting from his friendship with many of his new manager’s old enemies at Real Madrid.
“I am not the kind of guy who makes life easy for the great players,” Mourinho revealed back in July. “This kind of player is the last I praise. If they are 'great', they have to give more than the others.” The new boss was talking about Hazard, but none of Chelsea's artists have since experienced more tough Mourinho love than Mata.
Yet the idea that Mata is either an unwilling or incapable team player makes little sense. This is, by all accounts, a model professional who trains well, studies for two degrees at the University of Madrid, maintains a blog in Spanish and English and practices yoga in his spare time in a bid to prolong his career. No one has ever described him as stupid or difficult to manage.
Neither, in his defence, has Mourinho. Yet while the Special One was unequivocal and unwavering in his conviction that Mata would not be sold this summer, he has been vague in explaining why he continues to overlook the Spaniard, and curiously oblivious of the need to properly reassure Chelsea fans after months of transfer speculation.
At Mourinho’s press conference prior to the Super Cup final in Prague, Mata was described as “fit and ready to play”, having overcome an injury sustained in pre-season. The next day he was an unused substitute. An hour in Saturday’s defeat to Everton was the reward for his patience but, six matches into the season, a man who notched 18 goals and 34 assists in 64 appearances in a Blue shirt last term has lasted no longer than 65 minutes in any of his three outings so far.
Chelsea boast more top creative options within their ranks than any other squad in Europe, yet in spite of Mourinho’s rotation policy, Hazard and Oscar have remained mainstays. There is the lingering sense that while Mourinho has still to decide on his strongest starting XI, he has already decided that Mata does not feature in it.
Against Basel, frustrated by massed defensive ranks, the Blues were crying out for a change of pace and direction borne not of a sharp sprint but a sharp mind.
Oscar put Jose Mourinho’s men in front on the stroke of half-time – and he continued to sparkle in isolation – but the home side never threatened Yann Sommer enough to justify feeling as comfortable in their lead as they appeared to. Eden Hazard was dithering and wasteful, Willian eager but peripheral, and Eto’o does not yet seem sure of himself.
Basel’s equaliser, when it came, was a perfect storm of timing, incisive one-touch passing and a clinical finish from Mohamed Salah, the most dangerous man on the pitch. Marco Streller’s soft winner, in the wake of Mourinho’s double substitution and change to what was at times a suicidal 4-2-4 formation, was inevitable.
These struggles might have been more logical had those watching been able to conclude that Chelsea’s best men had simply had a bad night. For Hazard this was certainly true and, while the atmospheric music and glamour of Champions League nights seem to inspire Oscar, he as yet remains capable of producing only scattered moments of brilliance.
For all the qualities of Hazard, Oscar and Willian, none can identify and act on an opening with an incisive pass as quickly or consistently as Mata. The first-half battleground was tailor-made for him. By the time he entered the fray after the break, however, Basel were gaining confidence and gathering momentum. And once Salah had levelled and Mourinho’s double change left his men woefully exposed, there was nothing the Spaniard could do to turn the tide.
The home fans at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening sensed what was needed all along, though their discontent only stretched as far as a resounding and pointed cheer when Mata was introduced. They are not about to tell the club’s most successful ever manager and returning messiah how to do his job just yet.
But if Chelsea's best player continues to gather dust as his team struggles, the temptation will grow.
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