Though I've never lived in the UK, I became a Chelsea fan at a pre-teen age during the 1996-97 season. With some of my school friends then were English, it wasn't surprising that from my school mates I interacted with a couple of Man United fans, one Sheffield Wednesday fan, and a bunch of Liverpool fans. I needed to have a team of my own, and my decision became easier when Zola came to Chelsea. With my liking the Italy football team in Euro 96, it was between Zola and Ravanelli who I leaned to, and inexplicably Chelsea drew me in. One bonus was that Chelsea played in blue, which was and is by far my favourite colour, but that and Zola was just pure awesomeness in human form.
I say all that to emphasise that during the 17 or so years being a fan, I have to confess I have had my player favourites in the Chelsea club. The list isn't long: Zola, Le Saux, Poyet, Flo and Lampard. Don't get me wrong, I loved many other players, but the special ones for me were these five (unless I forget one other) and when Mata came along he joined them.
He became one of the 'specials' last season. Everything about him, his technique, vision, passing, set pieces has made him a firm favorite of mine. And the added bit, that just made him more than just a great player was his attitude. There's nothing negative I can say about his temperament. A gentleman on and off the pitch. I mean, remember the moment when Spurs' Walker acted towards Mata last season and Mata's reaction to that.
Where does Mourinho come in? I could spend thousands of words on Mourinho's impact in the club, but I'd run out of words long before I gave him justice while still say everything most Chelsea fans already thought. His effect on the club in turning them into winners continued with the team all the way until Di Matteo's first few months to the CL win. The likes of Terry, Lampard, Mikel, Cech, Drogba, Kalou, and Cole continued a spine of determination and hard work with a winning mentality, which also persisted before that with the likes of Essien, Makelele, and Ballack as well as others.
I wasn't sure Mourinho coming back was a good idea. It is no slight on his managerial greatness, which is clear to all, but that he was let go/fired/quit after his first time here, and we still have the same owner. I felt that considering both us and him didn't remain long with managers or clubs after our time together there really wasn't much evidence there that things wouldn't be the same as before.
However, so far things have gotten rather well under Mourinho. He's managed to mold defensive steel in our team, which looked impossible last season. He's managed to make a miracle in getting Terry to perform very well, when I thought Terry was done this past summer based on last season's performance. With all the talk about Arsenal and City, we've quietly kept up with them with little fuss. And then consider this is mostly a team I suspect is not really a Mourinho team, it's outstanding what Mourinho has brought to the club in such a short period of time. He deserves absolute praise for all so far.
Coming back to our Spanish wizard, it's not surprising I've been caught completely off-guard with Mata's role in the season so far. I never suspected this. I actually anticipated Mourinho wouldn't be too impressed with Luiz in CB, I could easily tell Mourinho would love Oscar's all round play. But rather than have an issue with Mata, I actually suspected it would be Hazard that Mourinho would have issues with. I could not imagine a world where any manager would come to Chelsea and see Mata as an issue, or anything apart from a player that one would relish building a team around.
25-32 goals, 40-50 assists. While the stats differ, that's what Mata has offered in his first two seasons with us. Who complained about Mata last season, from the Chelsea fans? Who looked at the team's issues and position in the league and finishing third in the CL group, and thought "Mata is a problem"? Very few Chelsea fans, I suspect, or likely none at all.
I state very openly and clearly that Mata is a favourite of mine because I have to be open to the suggestion that am I unhappy with him not playing far more under Mourinho being because he deserves to, or because I'd start him in spite of any negatives? Am I being realistic, or is it just pure favoritism from me? While I love to think of myself as being rational, occasionally I wonder that myself.
After half a season, enough time has passed to have some fair opinion on the season. Mata has not been frozen out of the team, he has played a number of games and he has had chances to display what he can provide. 1 goal and 3 assists... particularly unimpressive from Juan Mata.
Simultaneously, I haven't been that impressed with our attack in general over the half season overall. Oscar, Hazard, Schurrle and Willian have not been able to make up our lack of vision and creativity that we lack without Mata, but they have brought a level of energy, determination never stop activity that isn't a Mata quality. Where Mata would pinpoint a beautiful and deadly pass to the right moment and the right player, the other four would relentless overwhelm the opposition until a goal is forced out.
But there has been an improvement post-Arsenal PL game, we have shown a solidity in defence that merged with an efficiency in attack that has gotten us keeping up with Arsenal and City, who have genuinely been impressive this season. And we've achieved that almost without Mata completely, apart from what I considered an excellent game from Mata against Swansea. Watching Oscar and Willian bully Southampton's defence aside right after Mata displayed unhappiness at being subbed was major shift in attitude from the media and many Chelsea fans. Then came down Liverpool and Man United. If it works, who can criticise Mourinho?
You won't be surprised that I would not sell Mata this month for any offer imaginable. Either being stubborn or hopeful, I still feel Mata has a potential role to play for us. For a few reasons. One, Mourinho has played Hazard and Oscar alot this season, outside of injuries. And I mean alot. It is entirely feasible that as the season draws on, and we proceed to later stages of the CL and FA Cup, that they would be fatigued and their performances lessen in quality or need a break. Having Mata to jump in will be very important.
Two, and this may be seen as pessimistic by many, but it is a fear. Let me say I have a feeling if we got almost any other manager, Pellegrini, Guardiola etc... aside from getting Del Bosque (who seems to have similar hesitations with Mata that Mourinho does) that Mata would be in the first-11. Can I prove it? No, I can't. But I do feel that Mata would be a main player, starting almost every game with most other managers. So my second reason is that I can't be sure Mourinho will be with us for long. I want him to be with us for long, one would hope that the club and Mourinho accepting one another can mean each side has learned the lesson and things won't be the same again. That they made their peace and things will be different, with a long-term vision. But... I keep remembering that Mourinho has never lasted 4 full seasons at any club as manager, and only once with Barcelona as assistant manager. Imagine, the longest Mourinho has been with a club continuously as a manager or assistant is with Barcelona (according to wiki, correct me if I'm wrong).
Now lets say we trust Mourinho wants to stay for the long haul. Can we trust the club has changed their minds as well? We've gone through many managers in Mourinho's absence, we sacked a PL winning manager 1 season afterwards and sacking our first Champions League winning manager in club history 6 months after winning. And here lies my problem. If there's no guarantee Mourinho will last many seasons, why lose a wizard who another manager could appreciate?
But that is not the main reasons I don't want Mata sold. The main reason is simply I still rate Mata currently as our best attacking midfielder. He may not have shown his magic this season that he did last. Oscar and Hazard may in the future continue to improve to the point that they surpass Mata, and considering their young ages this is highly possible, but at this moment if we had a Champions League final tomorrow and you told me to pick the one player who can get us goals and opportunities... a purely attacking choice, I would pick Mata every single day and twice on Saturday.
Call me naive, call me displaying favouritism, but I want Mata to stay with us, because I still have the opinion that Mata is one of the most talented players I have seen play in this club. I still think with time, he can improve himself to the point that he is doing the job Mourinho wants from him and still be the devastating player we've seen him be in attack. Whether I'm stubborn or not, I feel we should wait at least until the summer to see what can occur.
I hate the fact that my mind is torn by the respect I have for Mourinho's amazing managerial abilities and my love for Mata's brilliance in talent. I never saw it coming, and am still dumbfounded by the whole thing. To watch two geniuses in one club and slowly begin to realise that we may not be able to enjoy both is a genuinely weird feeling to have, and it's not a good feeling.