There was a time not too long ago when Spain’s Juan Mata could do no wrong. Having bagged Chelsea Player of the Year for the second successive season, then interim Stamford Bridge boss Rafael Benítez hailed his fellow countryman as the player to fire Chelsea to silverware over the next few seasons. The fact Mata netted 20 goals and 28 assists in all competitions and was named in the PFA Team of the Year, it was hard to argue with Rafa’s assessment. The player’s record was something a central striker would be proud of, not to mention a second striker or playmaker. Now he is a forgotten man in the build up to the Brazil World Cup.
With just three months until the tournament begins and even less time before Spain boss Vicente del Bosque names his squad for Brazil 2014, Mata finds himself playing on a Manchester United squad struggling to challenge the Premier League’s elite. It also did not help Mata to learn he was left out of the Spain squad ahead of the 1-0 victory over Italy this week. To call Mata persona non grata would be an understatement and to say his World Cup dreams hang by a thread is putting it mildly. The fact he is cup-tied also means he cannot even show what he is capable of in the Champions League, Europe’s premier club competition.
What happened? The return of José Mourinho to Chelsea certainly did not help matters. Mourinho has always been a manager who likes his players to track back, regardless of their flair and ability to unlock defenses. Mata is not one of those and when he found himself in a squad fighting for a place alongside the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar, he either had to change his game or seek a future elsewhere. There is only ever one winner when it comes to Mourinho and team selection and the boss was not afraid to upset fans by allowing their favorite player to join reigning Premier League champions, United. The fact Chelsea received £31.7 million in return certainly softened the blow but Chelsea fans were still scratching their heads.
David Moyes needed someone at Old Trafford urgently and Mata needed first team action in a World Cup year, so the move made sense for both parties. Whether it has paid off is a different matter for Mata. Although he has put in some decent performances, with the most notable one coming in the 2-0 defeat of Crystal Palace last month, he has not shone. With pundits criticizing his lack of effort when United lose the ball combined with the fact he has yet to score for his laboring new club, Mata faces a much different problem in Manchester than he did in London. While Oscar and Hazard prevented Mata from showing Mourinho what he had to offer, he is now surrounded by players who are just not for the fight and who do not complement him. Spain’s boss Vicente del Bosque already has an embarrassment of riches in midfield and attack, many of whom are not even guaranteed a seat on the plane to the World Cup, so Juan Mata finds himself in a difficult position through no real fault of his own and a forgotten man.
Spain won Euro 2012 without a recognized striker, with Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas making up the “forward line” supported by
Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Mata did come on as a substitute and score in the final against Italy but this time he has the likes of Jesús Navas, Thiago Alcântara all vying for a midfield/attacking spot and so it is not getting any easier for a place on the bench. Juan Mata needs to put in the best performances of his life in the last few games of the Premier League season and hope del Bosque takes notice. Otherwise he will remain Spain’s forgotten man come the World Cup.
This article is one in a daily series providing commentary and analysis of the teams and players participating in this year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Commentary By Robert Shepherd