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Chelsea must not let the Mata sacrifice go to waste

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Michael Steele

Five days ago, Chelsea fans were happy. More than happy, in fact. They'd seen off Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, brushing them aside like the spent force they were, and although the Blues were only third in the table they were both right in the mix for the title and well clear of fifth place and its accompanying horrors. For the first time in three seasons, the fans could watch a title race rather than see their club try to compete for the booby prize that is fourth.

Now we're less happy. Make no mistake, the addition of Nemanja Matic last week means that the squad is stronger than it was going into the month, but much of that gain has been erased by the impending departure of Juan Mata. Certainly, losing Kevin de Bruyne and Mata and replacing the pair with Mohamed Salah and Matic is less palatable than when we were merely swapping de Bruyne for the big midfielder.

There's been strengthening, then, but it's marginal, especially when you consider where we stood at the end of the United game. Then we were in position to give Manchester City a serious run for the title. Since then we've sold a player who, historically, has made a huge difference to the squad and one whom you would expect to help out significantly during the run-in.

We are also have significantly more cash on hand than we did on Monday.

This season, I think, represents an opportunity to reestablish ourselves as a real presence at the top of the league, going back to the years between 2005 and 2010 in which we were constant threats for the title. We've gotten this far without a major gap developing between ourselves, Arsenal and City, and proper strengthening before the window closed looked it could make us favourites to claim our fourth Premier League crown.

Once we climb that mountain with this team, we'd be in position to dominate the country for an extended period. United are wobbling, City's team is aging and built to win now, while Chelsea's best players are yet to come into proper bloom. Winning with the kids could temper them into mature players rather than merely talented youngsters, much like it did in 2005.

On top of being an emotional gut-punch for supporters, selling Mata undoes that strengthening, no matter how much the club needed help in the central midfield over the attacking band. That means that the next week is critical not just in the title race this season but in the development of the squad over the next few years. There's plenty of money free and there are obvious positions of need -- midfield still needs help despite the addition of Matic, and although the strikers have been performing better of later there's still obvious room to upgrade there.

Jose Mourinho has suggested that nothing more will happen; he's also pretty well demonstrated that he's happy to mislead the press as often as possible while Chelsea attempt to strengthen. This is an opportunity to convert the sacrifice of Mata into a good chance at the league, both this year and beyond. If we don't take it, that sacrifice will look even more ill-conceived.