Juan Mata Shows Eden Hazard, Oscar He's Still Chelsea's Main Midfield Maestro

Tony MabertContributor ISeptember 22, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22:  Juan Mata of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Stoke City at Stamford Bridge on September 22, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Chelsea may be European champions, but they still struggled to overcome the rather unique challenge of facing Stoke City on Saturday.

It took the Blues until the 86th minute of their Premier League clash at Stamford Bridge to break the deadlock, and when they did, Juan Mata was the man who grabbed the assist for a rare Ashley Cole goal in the 1-0 victory.

A lot has been made of Chelsea's various summer signings, who together cost the European champions more than £70 million. Eden Hazard announced his arrival in English football with a bang by having a direct hand in six of Chelsea's first eight league goals of the season before the Stoke game, while Oscar had the whole of Europe cooing on Wednesday following his scoring of that goal against Juventus on his first start for the club.

Then there are Marko Marin and Victor Moses, young attacking players who are yet to get their opportunities to really make their marks at the club.

But Mata was voted the club's player of the year last season, his first at Chelsea and the year they became the first London club to win the Champions League. The 24-year-old gave a timely reminder of why that is the case as he helped secure a win which took them three points clear at the top of the Premier League table and ensured that they will remain league leaders regardless of Sunday's results.

It was his impudent back heel which flicked the ball into Cole's path to round off a wonderfully incisive passing move which involved half of the team's outfield players.

Before that, in the first half, it was Mata's weighted chip into the box which Fernando Torres took on his chest and should have slotted past Asmir Begovic, only for the misfiring Spain striker to spurn the chance, which had been served up on a plate for him.

Stoke were unfortunate to lose and had good chances to lead the match of their own before Cole grabbed the points with his first goal since May 2010. They were set up to frustrate Chelsea by forcing them to play even more narrowly than usual, with Ryan Shawcross and ex-Chelsea defender Robert Huth quite happy to repel whatever came their way.

Of all Roberto Di Matteo's players on Saturday, it was Mata who had the most influence over the home side's attempts to break down their resolute opponents. The diminutive playmaker completed five key passes, more than any of his teammates, and he also had more touches of the ball (85) and attempted more crosses (11), too.

This, of course, should come as no surprise. After all, only Manchester City's David Silva registered more than Mata's 13 assists in the Premier League last season. Given that Mata also notched up another seven assists in Chelsea's victorious European and FA Cup campaigns combined, there is a pretty strong case for stating that he was last season's most creative player in England ahead even of his former Valencia teammate.

Mata's quality has never been in doubt, but after he was rested for the midweek match, he returned to the starting lineup alongside Oscar and Hazard to serve a significant reminder that he is still a key creative force in the Chelsea team.

He will almost certainly have a big part to play when Chelsea travel to play their next Premier League fixture, an away trip to Arsenal.