Juan Mata Debut Gives Manchester United Hope at Top-4 Finish

Tim KeeneyContributor IJanuary 28, 2014

Manchester United's Juan Mata, right, keeps the ball from Cardiff City's Gary Medel, left, and Craig Noone, second left, during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

Juan Mata's debut against Cardiff City was just the beginning. 

In his first match for Manchester United since coming over from Chelsea for £37 million, the 25-year-old Spaniard gave Old Trafford a glimpse of what he can provide. 

Mata was at the center of attack on Robin van Persie's opening goal in the sixth minute, and he assisted on Ashley Young's terrific finish in the second half, playing 85 total minutes and sitting at the center of the Red Devils' 2-0 victory. 

He very nearly had another assist in the first half when he delivered a beautiful cross to Young at the far post, but the Red Devils weren't able to find the back of the net on that instance. 

Still, according to WhoScored.com, Mata, who played in front of the midfield and behind RVP, tied with Patrice Evra for a match-high four key passes, led the team with 52 passes and added a shot on target. He finishes with a very solid match rating of 7.4. 

Moreover, Squakwa added this impressive stat:

Mata talked about his performance afterward, via Sky Sports:

"It's been an amazing game for meI tried my best, my team-mates are very good and the atmosphere has been incredible.

"It's been a while since the last game I played, it was 1 January. Last week, I didn't train very much because I was waiting. I am very happy to have played in the line-up, and I'm looking forward to playing more.

Many will be quick to point out that, overall, United looked fairly underwhelming for much of the night. A two-goal win at home against the league's bottom-dwellers isn't exactly something to write home about. 

But there are certain factors to consider. 

First, it was Van Persie's first game back from an injury that held him out for seven weeks. Second, Wayne Rooney played just a half-hour, coming on for RVP in the 63rd minute. Third, as Mata himself pointed out, it was his first match in nearly a month, and he hadn't trained for a week. He's still not close to being in top form—yet he still made an undeniable impact. 

So, while Monday's victory may have been underwhelming, consider it a glimmer of hope rather than a continuation of a brutal month of January. 

United may be realistically out of the title hunt, but once Mata is settled in and orchestrating for RVP and Rooney at the same time, a spot in the Champions League—fourth-place Liverpool is currently six points clear of the Red Devils—is undoubtedly attainable.