Juan Mata yesterday revealed that Fernando Torres turned down the chance to end his desperate quest for a Chelsea goal against Birmingham City on Tuesday night because he wasn't "first on the list" to take penalties.
Mata missed the spot-kick, in his side's 2-0 FA Cup victory – Chelsea's first game since the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas last Sunday – after offering it to Torres. The £50m striker, who has not scored since October, refused to take it. "I asked him if he wanted to take it because he won the penalty," Mata said. "Torres said, 'I'm not first on the list to take it,' so that's what happened." When asked if he was surprised that Torres turned down the opportunity to score, Mata replied: "I don't know. Robbie [Di Matteo] put up a piece of paper with who shoots penalties and that's what we did."
Mata also admitted that he had been "sad" to see Villas-Boas leave Chelsea but said he was hopeful of a "new start" after the caretaker manager, Di Matteo, led the team to the quarter-finals and a home tie against Leicester City on 18 March.
Mata, who scored at St Andrew's, as well as missing his penalty, said he hoped Di Matteo could inspire a successful conclusion to a difficult season. "It was important for the confidence of the team and it could be a new start," he said, "the beginning of a good run of results for us." But the Spaniard was disappointed by the departure of Villas-Boas, who signed him from Valencia last summer. "We were sad because it's always a difficult moment when a club changes its manager," he said. "Andre was a very good manager and a very good person as well. We are very grateful to him."
One of Villas-Boas's first moves at Chelsea was to buy Mata for £23.5m. "I played a lot of minutes, a lot of games and of course he was important for me," Mata said. "It's obvious I came here for the club but for him as well. He gave me a lot of confidence and for this I am very grateful to him."
The Chelsea owner Roman Abram-ovich spoke to the players after sacking Villas-Boas. "He said that we have an opportunity to change this run of defeats," Mata said, "and against Birmingham we did so we have to keep going and try to get better."
The selection of Torres, who has not scored in 23 games, was in line with the wishes of Abramovich. Di Matteo's team selection also, surprisingly, left out almost all of the senior players who are thought to have been at odds with Villas-Boas. Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, who were both controversially dropped for the 3-1 Champions League defeat in Naples last month, did not start on Tuesday. Neither did Didier Drogba or Florent Malouda. The departure of Villas-Boas will not necessarily lead to the re-integration of those senior players who were aligned against him. The faltering transition from the Jose Mourinho era that such players represent to a new one should carry on, but under new leadership.
Unsurprisingly, Mata said the players were pulling together. "There is a lot of unity here," he said. "No matter who the manager is we are all focused on the same objective. We must do the best for the club."
Chelsea are just three points off fourth place in the Premier League, with a winnable Cup quarter-final and a two-goal Champions League deficit to overturn. "We will try to win the FA Cup, it is a special competition," Mata said. "We have an opportunity to play at Wembley in the semi-final and final, which is very nice. We will try to win this FA Cup and against Napoli. We can do it, it is possible for us to win 2-0. We are going to keep giving 100 per cent for the rest of the season to achieve this."