Diplomatic Juan Mata focuses on Chelsea's Europa League task
The end of Juan Mata's second season at Chelsea is still at least five games away and yet already he is preparing for the possibility of his second European final, his third trophy and, unquestionably, the arrival of the fourth manager he has worked under.
Welcome to Chelsea, where life can be chaotic but the excitement never wanes. If that was not exhausting enough, the Spain international has played 123 games for club and country over the last two years and tomorrow he and Chelsea stand on the brink of a Europa League final.
Trophies are what happen at Chelsea while they are busy making plans to replace the manager. That was the case last season when Mata was part of the Champions League team that Roberto Di Matteo took over from the deposed Andre Villas-Boas. Now he is a key member of the side, or rotation system, that Rafa Benitez has refined since taking over from Di Matteo – indeed, after every regime-change, Mata has unfailingly found favour with each new manager.
"I've said it before, as a professional you have to be able to do it: to train, to perform and win no matter who the manager is," Mata said. "Chelsea are a club who are always at the top level. It's true I've had three managers. I really enjoyed myself with all of them. Now we are with Rafa and have a chance to win another trophy with him. Maybe it'll be a great season in the end. And that's what we want."
It is the sensible diplomacy that has characterised Mata's time in England. A supremely skilful player on the pitch, capable of changing the course of the game; a thoughtful soul away from it with his university course in journalism and his photo-essays of London. The only question that hovers over him is whether he fits the template for a Jose Mourinho player, with the Real Madrid manager now the first choice to succeed Benitez this summer.
Such is the importance of Mata to the new Chelsea, it seems churlish to ask the question but it has been chewed over by those who know well how the club works. When Mata was signed it was with a view to building a version of Barcelona at Stamford Bridge under Villas-Boas. Two years, and three managers later, it will not be Barcelona that Mourinho tries to recreate – he does things his own way.
Mourinho's midfield, in just over three seasons at Chelsea, were built around players who had power and athleticism – Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack – with less requirement for a playmaker in the more traditional 4-1-4-1 system that he deployed. Of course, times change, but it will be interesting to see how he regards Mata.
Asked whether he would welcome the arrival of Mourinho, Mata found himself in that awkward position of trying to second-guess Roman Abramovich. "It's not our business, the players, to be honest," he said. "Now we have so many important things still to come. We just have to be focused about what we're playing for, a very important trophy for the club, and being third in the league to get into the Champions League. That's it, all I can say."
Did he think that Benitez, the man alongside him, should be given longer? "Tricky, it doesn't depend on me," he said. "All I can say is that we're working really, really well with Rafa. That's the truth for me. In the training and games we're all together, trying to do the best for Chelsea. That's what we want. As a player, all I can do is perform at my best every game. That's what I'm trying to do."
A 2-1 lead in the semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge requires Basel to score twice at least and despite their success on penalties against Tottenham Hotspur in the previous round – after a 2-2 draw – history does not favour them. Basel have not won in nine games in European competition in England and a Swiss club has not won a tie in this country since Lucerne beat Spurs in the InterToto Cup at the Goldstone Ground in Brighton in 1995.
Chelsea last lost at home in Europe to Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2011 but Benitez warned against the complacent view that they have already secured their place in the final in Amsterdam in two weeks' time. With United awaiting on Sunday in that crucial league game, Benitez also has to husband his resources although he has no injuries in the squad apart from the long-term absentee Oriol Romeu. Ashley Cole will miss the game through suspension.
"I have to use my words carefully: I am concerned, but I'm not afraid," Benitez said. "We know they're a dangerous team. They're quite strong, score goals away, but we know we have a good team and are so close to the final. We have to be focused and make sure we don't make mistakes, but I have a lot of confidence in my players."
The interim first team coach was asked on many occasions about Mourinho's hints that he is returning to Chelsea. This was not an occasion upon which Benitez wished to impart one of his famous messages.
This is not the trophy that Chelsea wanted but it will be a nice add-on to the season providing they qualify for the Champions League. "Since we were out of the group in the Champions League," Mata said, "every time I watch a game on the TV from the competition I think it's a shame." That is putting it mildly – it is the one prize they cannot afford to miss out on.
Belfast Telegraph Digital