By Liam Twomey
When it comes to Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Stoke at Stamford Bridge, Ashley Cole’s first Chelsea goal in over two years has stolen the headlines. And understandably so, given it was the strike which keeps the Blues at the top of the Premier League for another weekend and, perhaps, saves Roberto Di Matteo from another training ground visit from Roman Abramovich.
Yet, moments before Cole calmly dinked the ball over Asmir Begovic, another Chelsea stalwart provided further evidence to support the supposition that his team’s success this season will be inextricably linked to his ability to showcase his genius when it matters most.
On Saturday, as Eden Hazard toiled his way to an early withdrawal and Oscar showed the downside to the rawness inherent in his sensational talent, it was the little Spaniard who executed a superbly improvised flick five minutes from time which sent Branislav Ivanovic’s low centre perfectly into Cole’s path and earned the Premier League leaders a potentially crucial three points.
In truth, the decisive assist was no less than Mata deserved. He had delivered another masterclass in midfield playmaking, constantly moving, passing, probing, undeterred by Stoke’s immoveable ranks of relative giants. Several times a sudden shift of the hips and slide-rule pass had given his team-mates a brief sight of goal, only to be snuffed out both by good defending and their own failings.
Chelsea’s breakthrough should have come with their number 10’s first piece of brilliance just 25 minutes in, when an inch-perfect lob took out the entire Stoke defence before dropping invitingly at the feet of Fernando Torres.
The man who lit up Anfield for two glorious years between 2007 and 2009 would have swept the ball home without a second thought, but there is a growing sombre acceptance among the Stamford Bridge faithful that the man Abramovich paid £50m to bring to west London 18 months ago will never again scale such heights. He kicked air, Begovic smothered, and the chance was gone.
On the whole, however, the hosts rarely got that close, as Stoke dropped deep, pressed their attackers in numbers and defended as one.
Even so, there were enough dazzling combinations between Hazard, Mata and Oscar to suggest they can work – and do so spectacularly – as a trio behind a striker but, as Di Matteo himself afterwards admitted, it will take hours of practice and effort on the training field before they add up to the sum of their incredibly gifted parts.
In the centre of the pitch, Ramires produced the kind of all-action display which lends credence to the view that he can be the man to drive Chelsea’s midfield whenever Frank Lampard finally decides to hang up his boots. Whether that is to be alongside John Obi Mikel, who once again raised the ire of the home crowd with some woefully careless passing, remains to be seen.
At the back, the same vulnerabilities which were laid devastatingly bare against Atletico Madrid and cost Di Matteo’s men victory against Juventus were again in evidence. Stoke were hardly swift or subtle in their approach, yet they will look back on the Jonathan Walters header which crashed off the crossbar and Michael Kightly’s fumbled first-half shot as evidence of a potential three points lost.
Fortunately for Chelsea, issues at both ends of the pitch have been minimised by the exceptional fluidity and creativity of their midfield, and Mata has been central to this success.
His assist statistics may not be as prolific as those of Hazard and he cannot boast a strike the equal of Oscar’s against Juventus but, with both new signings set to endure the ups and downs of adapting to life in the Premier League and far tougher tests of this new-look team to come, it is Mata on whom the burden of responsibility will rest. On Saturday, he proved himself more than up to the task.
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