Juan Mata was superb for Chelsesa last year, but after a sluggish start it looked like he might be outshone by Eden Hazard, whose fast start saw him pick up one goal and four assists in his first three games for the London club.
Mata had insisted he was not feeling the ill-effects of his busy summer with Spain, but his form since returning from the two week break granted by Di Matteo has been exceptional, suggesting he needed the time off.
It was a brave decision by the Italian manager, to grant this time off to a player who was so integral to their performances last season. But the aim was clearly to have a player able to contribute over the whole season, rather than burn out by Christmas.
Since his return, Mata has notched up two goals and four assist in three starts. This has been a timely contribution, as Hazard has not been able to live up to the incredibly high standards he set himself in the first three games of the season. Although he is an immense talent, the main man in Chelsea's midfield will still have to be Mata this season and it was worrying to see him out of sorts in the first few matches.
Mata was back to his exhilarating best in Chelsea's win over Arsenal at the weekend. picking up a goal and an assist from dead ball situations was part of his strong all round performance; he completed 47/51 passes, and, more importantly, 20/24 in the final third.
This followed him completing 30/36 passes in the attacking third in the match against Stoke. He is an artist in the congested area around the opponents penalty box and he will be the key in picking apart stubborn defences for Chelsea this season, something that was proven when he put in Ashley Cole for the late winner against Stoke.
With the raft of new signings they have brought in, and the reduced role given to their experienced players, Mata, with his one full season in the Premiership, is one of the senior men in their attack. The extra experience he has will be vital on those days when the likes of Hazard and Oscar struggle to fire.
It would also be a mistake to paint Mata as a less talented player than those two simply because he is less novel. Mata has all the tricks and an eye for a pass that is unmatched in Chelsea’s squad. You would also feel that he is key to the success of Fernando Torres this season, as the Spaniards have linked up well already this season.
Di Matteo has made an excellent call in allowing Mata an extra two weeks off. Chelsea have already seen the benefits, and should continue to enjoy them right up to May.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald