Last May, in the second leg of FC Basel’s Europa League semifinal at Stamford Bridge, Mohamed Salah made an instinctive, darting run between Gary Cahill and Ryan Bertrand, pushed off the former as he linked up with Valentin Stocker’s pass and curled the ball into the back of the net to put the guests in front.
Chelsea would respond with a trio of second-half goals and go on to win the tie, as well as the trophy, but they were no doubt glad to see the back of the Swiss side and the pesky Salah who would torture them again four months later.
On that occasion, in a Champions League group stage encounter, Salah sat off the Chelsea defense and awaited Marco Streller’s pass, which he needed only a single touch to send into the far corner of the goal after suddenly springing into action.
And in the final week of November, with Chelsea visiting St-Jakob Park, Salah struck again—this time powering past both Cahill and John Terry before beating Petr Cech with that trusty left foot.
Blues manager Jose Mourinho didn’t forget the trouble the Egyptian attacker had inflicted on his side, and on Thursday the Premier League giants revealed through their official website that they had agreed a fee with Basel for Salah’s signature.
Despite being named Chelsea’s Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons, Mata had never caught on with Mourinho following the exit of Rafael Benitez and was given just 11 Premier League starts under the Portuguese and one in the Champions League.
He spent the entirety of the Blues’ Sunday win at home to Manchester United on the bench, just as he had done in each of Chelsea’s previous two matches; his final statistical tally for the club revealed just one goal and two assists in all competitions.
Baffling as Mata’s fate at Stamford Bridge proved to be, Mourinho never minced words when explaining what he expected from the Spaniard—that he wanted him to commit more to the defensive side of the game and "adapt to reality," as per the Mirror.
And when asked if Mata could work his way into a squad that already included Oscar, a Mourinho favourite, the manager replied, via the Guardian: "Only when he adapts to do what we want."
He added: "I want the other two players, from the side, to adapt to that reality and learn how to do things they were not ready to do before...It’s about changing mentality."
But can Mourinho get out of Salah what he was never able to coax out of Mata?
He must think so, and given Salah’s age and natural physicality, he is no doubt confident he can develop his new acquisition similarly to Eden Hazard and Willian, both of whom are becoming astute markers of opposing full-backs.
That said, Salah’s arrival and Mata’s exit is hardly a like-for-like swap, as the acceleration and power of the Egypt international will provide Chelsea with an entirely different weapon for the arsenal.
Like Mata, however, Salah cannot expect simply to walk into the starting lineup and, to that end, the competition for places that already exists at the club will hardly diminish. Chelsea have already sent the likes of Victor Moses, Lucas Piazon, Marko Marin and Romelu Lukaku out on loan, and as far as the first team is concerned, Salah would seem to be in a battle with Willian and Andre Schurrle for regular football.
But given Mourinho’s refusal to use Mata, as well as fostering a playing style that already has the team in contention for major honours this season, it would seem Chelsea have, indeed, improved with the addition of Salah.
They’ve shipped out a player they weren’t using to begin with, exchanged him for a player four years younger and came out of it nearly £20 million ahead.
And that, whether for the accountants or the coaching staff, is a good piece of business.