Juan Mata is but another example in soccer’s long history of players who one day are in the conversation as one of the world’s best and the next are basically afterthoughts. Often it comes as fast as it goes and next thing you know you’re on a slow boat to Toronto FC.
That’s not an entirely fair way to label Mata — Chelsea’s Player of the Year two seasons running — but the 25-year-old Spanish attacker has turned into surplus requirements at Stamford Bridge, mainly due to manager Jose Mourinho’s whims. The Mata/Mourinho tension began in the summer and hasn’t subsided with the Spanish international pinned to the bench since an appearance on New Year’s Day.
As talented as he may be, Mata is the victim of younger players able to perform his role for slightly less money. In this case Mourinho has settled on an attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian, so it’s not as if Mata is being squeezed out of the Chelsea midfield by Joe Cole version 2.0.
The beneficiary of Mata’s unsettled situation — which has the added urgency of coming six months before the World Cup — could be Manchester United. Nearly all the big English media outlets are running with the story that United are strongly considering a club-record £37 million ($60 million U.S.) bid for Mata in the last 24 hours. Later reports on Tuesday state Chelsea would sell for £40 million ($65 million). It says a lot about the current status of United under David Moyes that Chelsea might not worry about sending one of their better assets north without worry of bolstering a rival in the Premier League title chase.
This is a no-lose situation for United. We’ll discuss Mata’s potential impact on the club in a bit, but a bid like this — and all the press it creates — comes at the perfect time for United which slipped to seventh place following Sunday’s loss to Chelsea. United remain 14 points off the first place and even Sir Alex Ferguson after two or three glasses of red wine would concede the title is out of reach for the club. More alarming is United continues to fall further behind in the race for a Champions League place, now six behind Liverpool and Spurs.
Creating all this buzz about Mata makes sense. It shows United supporters worldwide, that although the club’s summer transfer window was a disaster, they’re trying to rectify things in January. If the bid falls through and Chelsea doesn’t accept, United can easily spin it that it came down to the whims of Mourinho. It wouldn’t be on par with his celebration at Old Trafford during the 2004 Champions League with Porto, but it would be another move by the Special One to stick in the craw of Red Devils’ fans. Although he’s not part of the plans at Chelsea now, the club is still engaged in the Champions League and Premier League, so all it takes is one little sprain and Mata is back in the fold — something the Blues strongly need to consider.
As for Mata himself at United? He’s not exactly the player they need — that’s Juventus’ French midfielder and former Red Devil Paul Pogba — but adding a player of Mata’s caliber isn’t exactly a negative, either. Lately you could make a compelling argument overhauling the defense led by the rapidly declining Nemanja Vidic should be United’s top priority, but in 2014 it’s much easier to find a player for Mata on the market than it is a pedigreed central defender at the Champions League standard.
Should Mata move to Old Trafford it likely ends the ill-fated Shinji Kagawa experiment after two seasons. Even so, in his first two full seasons in English soccer Mata produced 18 goals and 30 assists. Considering United’s reliance on Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney to score the majority of its goals, adding a midfielder with an eye for the net would be quite useful. Both van Persie and Rooney are getting both older and increasingly injury-prone, too.
And on the topic of Rooney, whom every few weeks seems to float hints about a move away from United? The English star has 17 months left on his contract at Old Trafford. Should United bring in Mata — which reportedly won’t include Rooney going in the opposite direction to Chelsea — it makes the loss of their temperamental No. 10 much easier to take. While you can theoretically never have too many good players at one time, Rooney and Mata do operate in similar spaces behind the striker, saying nothing of rapidly improving Adnan Januzaj — perhaps United’s player of the future.
If United’s play for Mata never materializes beyond the rumor mill, at least it shows the fan base that, despite the struggles under Moyes, the team is trying to improve. Meanwhile if Mata ends up wearing the famed red shirt before January is over, then United have addressed the club’s biggest issue: a glaring lack of world class talent compared to its closest rivals.
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