Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata is relishing the prospect of facing European champions Barcelona in their own backyard on Tuesday.
“The match is one of the biggest of my career. It’s a very special occasion,” he said ahead of the return leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final, which is very finely poised after Didier Drogba’s first-half strike gave the Blues an extremely hard-fought 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge last week.
Chelsea’s unexpected advantage was founded as much on their valiant defending as it was on the Ivorian’s opportunistic finishing, and inspired a jubilant Mata to post a celebratory tweet to his followers on Twitter: “Great score!!! It only left to complete the job at Camp Nou. Amazing Stamford Bridge!!!”
The Londoners’ exhilarating run to the semi-finals is the latest episode in perhaps the most intense season the 23-year-old Mata has experienced in his relatively short career. The Spaniard, who celebrates his birthday on Saturday, reluctantly left cash-strapped Valencia for west London last August and has been on a roller-coaster ride ever since.
Big-spending Chelsea, who earlier last year splashed out on Mata’s international team-mate Fernando Torres, had genuine designs on league success at the season’s start. Currently sixth in the table, however, they have fallen well short of their championship objectives, with young Portuguese manager Andre Vilas-Boas paying for their inconsistency with his job.
Solace has Chelsea's way in the cup competitions. As well as teeing up an FA Cup final date with Liverpool, they have battled their way through to the last four of the Champions League, where they have backed holders Barça into a corner following last week’s narrow victory.
Self-belief, once in short supply at the Bridge, is now oozing out of Roberto di Matteo’s team, as Mata confirmed: “We can score at Camp Nou. We’re full of confidence.”
The unassuming Mata has exceeded expectations in his first season with the club, having already chalked up more appearances and goals than compatriot Torres despite arriving seven months after him.
Yet, there is more to the elusive No10 ’s game than finding the back of the net. As his grateful team-mates can vouch for, the selfless Mata is as accomplished at laying goals on as he is at scoring them.
“What you’re trying to do with the final ball is catch defenders unaware,” he told Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia in a recent interview. “That’s not easy because they often try to play offside or read what you’re doing and intercept the ball. The ball’s also got to have just the right pace on it and be played to just the right spot because keepers are off their line so quickly.”
Mindful of Mata's qualities, caretaker coach Di Matteo has him playing in a freer, central role - one in which he is at liberty to express himself: “I’m not an out-and-out wide man, so when I’m playing out on the flank I try and come into the centre to get a better view of things.
“I feel more comfortable because I’m free to move around. I look for space between the lines so I can get on the ball, turn and have the time to think, which is in pretty short supply in football.”
Unable to display his full range of skills in the first leg, mainly due to Chelsea’s cautious gameplan, which saw him deployed in a deeper position than usual, Mata is hoping to shine in the return.
Though space and time will be at a premium with Barcelona’s high-tempo pressing game, Mata has faith in his own ability: “You have to take risks. That’s one of the rules when you play in the hole. It’s difficult but if you don’t try, then you’ll never know if you can do it or not.”
Now settled in London, and grateful that the British winter has not been quite so inclement as usual, the tireless Mata has stayed grounded despite the upward trajectory his career has taken. A member of Spain’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™-winning squad, he thought nothing of then dropping down a level and helping the U-21s book their place at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.
Though UEFA EURO 2012 is looming, Mata is more than willing to help out in the quest for gold. And given his contentment with life in the UK capital, the amiable Spaniard could well turn out to an Olympic talisman for La Rojita.