Why Juan Mata Is Key to Chelsea's Progress Against Basel in the Europa League
Before the turn of the millennium, Chelsea were nothing but your average underachievers hailing from the posh parts of West London. Their owner at the time, Ken Bates, had ambitious plans for the club, including luring world-class stars such as Marcel Desailly and Ruud Gullit to Stamford Bridge.
But perhaps his biggest plan was the capture of Italian forward Gianfranco Zola from Parma for a fee of £4.5 million in the summer of 1996, which was something of a coup considering he had played alongside Diego Maradona at former club Napoli.
Zola was your typical No. 10, dropping deep to collect the ball and dribbling with pace and conviction. The Italy international hit 59 goals in 229 games for the club, including his famous 25-second cameo against Stuttgart in the European Cup Winners' Cup.
And after Zola left the club for Cagliari 10 years ago, they have since struggled to replace him. Until the arrival of a little Spaniard with great ambitions.
The signing of Juan Mata from Valencia two years ago was perhaps the best decision made in the short reign of Andre Villas-Boas, spending £26 million to secure the Spain international's signature ahead of rivals Arsenal.
It may have seemed a hefty investment, but, by all means, it was necessary. After all, Chelsea had failed in their bid to sign Luka Modric from Tottenham despite their £40 million offer. Instead, they signed the established playmaker Mata for much less, and he happened to be the final piece in their jigsaw.
No doubt, the Blues will be satisfied with the outcome. While Modric has struggled at Real Madrid since moving to the Santiago Bernabeu last summer, Mata has experienced resounding success with Chelsea both individually and with the team.
He was a pivotal part of the team that won the Champions League and FA Cup last year, and his performances were recognized by the club, with Mata awarded the club's Player of the Year award in his debut season at the club.
While many thought it would be difficult to repeat or even emulate, Mata has shown the kind of form that shows why Chelsea were prepared to spend millions of pounds to secure his signature. As well as scoring 18 goals this season, the 24-year-old has managed to create 27 goals for his Chelsea teammates.
As a result, he is the first name on the team-sheet under Rafa Benitez, and the very fact that the Blues have centralized their play around the talented midfielder has benefited them greatly.
His presence on the field cannot be ignored; as well as spreading out the play to Eden Hazard and Oscar, Mata has consistently lofted balls over to the lone striker. His 27 assists are largely made up of defense-splitting passes, and this is what Basel will need to eradicate from Chelsea's play if they are to progress.
Whether it's Fernando Torres or Demba Ba he plays it to is not important to him, even if the former is his friend and national teammate. The latter was gifted a beautiful pass in the FA Cup quarterfinal against Manchester United from his supplier Mata, and the Senegal striker made no mistake, firing into the net.
Sure, it was a great finish, but without the genius of the ex-Valencia man, the chance would never have presented itself.
And that is why the former Real Madrid trainee is key to any success Chelsea have. Whether it is in the Premier League, FA Cup or Europa League, you can guarantee Mata will be at the forefront of their attack, looking to drop into pockets of space and positioning himself in between the lines of defense.
His lack of physical strength can make him a weak link at times, but rather like Zola, his balance and low center of gravity can allow him to turn an opponent with consummate ease. Additionally, while he could make do with an extra few yards of pace, speed is not Mata's focal point. In any case, it could actually give him more time to think on the ball.
And when that happens, he is at his peak, without doubt. Close down Mata, and Basel may be able to secure an unlikely success.
But if he is on top form, and given the license to roam, it could be curtains for the Swiss side, and a second consecutive European final for the Blues.
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