By Liam Twomey
After two superb seasons and five frustrating months, Juan Mata’s time at Chelsea appears to be nearing its end. Even if Manchester United do not match the Blues' €54.5 million valuation this month - and not doing so would arguably constitute David Moyes’ most worst transfer decision yet - it is almost impossible to envision the Spaniard remaining at Stamford Bridge beyond the summer.
For a player who has frequently inspired and often carried Chelsea since his arrival for €28m from Valencia in August 2011 it is an incredible fall from grace. The evolution of Jose Mourinho’s second era Chelsea team, based on high-intensity pressing, tenacious tackling and swift counterattacks, has seemingly rendered the club’s greatest and purest artist obsolete in the eyes of his manager.
The statistics lay Mourinho’s rationale bare. Oscar, with eight goals and seven assists from 28 appearances in the No.10 position this season, is not on course to trouble Mata’s incredible totals of 19 goals and 34 assists from 61 games in the 2012-13 campaign.
But of Mourinho's squad only Ramires (53) has won more tackles than Oscar (43) in the Premier League this season, while only Ramires (40) and Branislav Ivanovic (29) have committed more fouls than the 21-year-old (24)*. Chelsea’s creative hub might be less potent but it has sharper teeth.
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That sale makes any decision to part with Mata this month a risky one, as future injuries might leave Mourinho short of bodies in an area once overloaded with quality options. But with Chelsea open to a deal, Moyes could do a lot worse than spend a chunk of his €180m transfer kitty on a footballer who was arguably without equal in England last season.
The Scot certainly has bigger positional priorities than a No.10 as he looks to freshen up an aging United team but, with results indifferent and the morale of players and fans plummeting, Mata could do for him what Mesut Ozil has done for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal since his deadline day arrival.
Signing the Spaniard would also strengthen United’s hand in dealing with the Wayne Rooney situation, serving both as a timely reminder of the club’s enduring ambition and a more than capable replacement talisman should the Englishman force through an Old Trafford exit next summer.
For when played in his preferred position, there can be no doubt that Mata is one of the finest and most consistent playmakers in world football. His performances over more than 60 games last term– after a packed summer of international commitments - highlighted his supreme physical conditioning as much as his dazzling talent.
Mata is also a man for the big occasion. Last season he scored crucial goals against Tottenham at White Hart Lane and home and away against Arsenal and Manchester United, and his crucial match-winning strike at Old Trafford in May was one of 12 Premier League goals that season, nine of which were scored away from Stamford Bridge.
Off the field the 25-year-old is a model professional, devoting himself to academic study, practising yoga once a week in an attempt to prolong his career and running a blog in two languages. Even as his Chelsea exile has reached intolerable levels his application has remained beyond reproach.
A player of Mata’s talent would grace any team, but the question of which club would suit him is more difficult to answer. Moyes’ bizarre treatment of Shinji Kagawa and the enduring presence of Wayne Rooney as preferred No.10 suggest there may be better destinations than Old Trafford. As Gary Neville said on Monday, the former Valencia man doesn't naturally suit United's philosophy unless a some would say much-needed overhaul of the squad is coming.
Bayern Munich’s squad has no weaknesses, while the high-intensity style of Juventus and Atletico Madrid might also prove problematic given his Chelsea experiences.
But Barcelona and Real Madrid both have insatiable appetite for acquiring world-class footballers and if Paris Saint-Germain have the will, they certainly possess the resources to persuade Chelsea to sell. There is also Napoli, coached by Rafa Benitez, the man under whom Mata flourished last season.
However it is United who lead the way as it stands and Moyes would be wise to remember that it is not often a top-class player so highly-lauded becomes available in January. This is as unique an opportunity as it is genuinely exciting for those at Old Trafford.
Chelsea’s collective improvement under Mourinho and the maturing of Oscar and Hazard mean they regard €54.5m as more useful than their two-time player of the year. Wherever he goes next, Mata deserves a club prepared to build a team around him. If he finds one, the rewards for all will be rich.
*Statistics provided by Opta