Playing for teams at opposite ends of the Premier League, Liam Bridcutt and Nemanja Matic have more in common than many may think.
They each made their full Premier League debut last weekend—Bridcutt putting in a fine performance for Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby, while Matic was named Man of the Match in Chelsea's 1-0 victory over Manchester City.
Indeed, they were performances that brought the spotlight on the pair for varying reasons but outside of their recent good fortunes, there is a little more to the tale.
Both players were once young upstarts at Chelsea, looking to make an impact in defensive midfield, only to find opportunities few and far between.
Having been with the club's academy for over a decade, Bridcutt departed Stamford Bridge in 2010 as he looked to make a name for himself elsewhere. He landed on the south coast, making over 130 appearances in the Football League for Brighton & Hove Albion.
Matic's previous spell with Chelsea was far shorter—just two years—before he was used as a makeweight in the transfer of David Luiz from Benfica to the Blues in 2011.
The Serbian returned to Chelsea this January for £21 million having proved himself in Portugal to be the player many had hoped he would become. Bridcutt, meanwhile, may not have scaled the same heights, but his move to Sunderland last month outlines the wisdom in his decision to drop down the leagues to further his career.
Indeed, Bridcutt flourished under Gus Poyet during his three-and-a-half years with the Seagulls. He became a fixture in midfield, helping the club to promotion from League One in 2011, while last season saw them come close to reaching the Premier League, losing out to Crystal Palace in the play-offs.
Joining Sunderland for £3.25 million, Bridcutt is reunited with his mentor, Poyet, and he finally has his chance in the top flight.
Like Matic's display against City, Bridcutt's accomplished performance in Sunderland's 3-0 derby win over Newcastle United suggests he is ready to seize his opportunity, too.
It will come as little surprise to the staff who coached him during his formative years at Stamford Bridge, where the Scottish international captained the youth team and was often praised for his positive attitude.
He was highly rated and with Claude Makelele on hand to impart advice, he had as good an education as any footballer of his generation—something the 24-year-old reflected upon in an interview with Chelsea magazine in May, 2007.
"My role model in that position [defensive midfield] is definitely Claude Makelele," Bridcutt said at the time. "Over the last two or three years I have really tried to base my game on his by studying him really closely.
What he does really isn’t all that complicated—he just wins the ball and gives it. But that’s half of what makes him such a good player. He so rarely makes mistakes and seems to be able to read the game so well—he seems to always know exactly where to be.
Watching Bridcutt at St. James' Park on Saturday, all that studying has paid off—it could very well have been Makelele turning out for Sunderland.
He was impeccable.
Poyet's side has been developing quietly in the months since he took charge after Paolo Di Canio's ill-fated spell, although there have been times when they have looked vulnerable in the middle.
Against Newcastle, it was quite the contrary.
Bridcutt was controlling the game, pulling the strings from his defensive midfield position in the way Makelele did all those years ago for Chelsea.
Avoiding temptation to be sucked out of position, chasing the ball, he instead showed his intelligence, covering ground by filling space and allowing Newcastle's attackers little freedom to express themselves.
Sunderland's defensive performance may have been among their most accomplished this term, but it was the influence of Bridcutt that allowed it to be.
It took three years with Benfica for Matic to fine tune his game and his development has impressed Chelsea so much that they have effectively paid the Aguias an £18 million development fee.
Matic is more a Michael Ballack than Makelele. He may not operate as far forward as Chelsea's former star did, yet there are similar attributes to their game, namely the physical edge they bring.
They are qualities Jose Mourinho values in his midfield players, hence why he convinced the Chelsea hierarchy to pay considerably more for a player they had allowed to leave for just £3 million.
He equally values the attributes Makelele brought to his title-winning teams of 2005 and 2006. With that in mind, could Liam Bridcutt soon be the subject of his affections?
Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @garryhayes
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