Juan Mata is an experienced head on young shoulders. Such is the poise of
Chelsea's latest signing, it's hard to believe he's only 23.
Looking back at photographs of him signing for Valencia in July 2007,
shaking the hand of a smiling Juan Soler - the president who brought the
club to near-financial ruin - it is a reminder of just how much Mata has
experienced in a mere four years in eastern Spain, and how his maturity
has shone throughout.
Mata's emergence was pretty much the only bright spot of Ronald Koeman's
disastrous spell in charge at the Mestalla. Having arrived from Castilla
(Real Madrid's B team), Mata has spoken of the initial "loneliness" of
joining a Valencia side beset by egos amidst general institutional chaos.
Yet after being given his debut by Koeman's predecessor Quique Sanchez
Flores, Mata became a regular under the much-criticised Dutchman and has
never looked back.
During his time in the capital Mata had already had his first taste of
international success, as part of the Spain side which won the European
Under-19 Championship in Poland in 2006. In a squad that also included
Barcelona's Gerard Pique and current Sporting Lisbon duo Diego Capel and
Jeffren, he won the player of the tournament trophy.
That said, there is no swagger or star attitude about Mata.
A year after being part of the Spain squad that won the World Cup in
South Africa, he spent this June as an over-age player captaining the
Under-21s to victory at the European Championship in Denmark.
In a recent interview with Esquire, Mata described his relationship with
the national team at all levels as "a love affair", and that rather than
be insulted by the request to drop down to the Under-21s, he was proud to
As a real team man, it is easy to see why Valencia coach Unai Emery built
his side around Mata after the departures of David Villa and David Silva.
Mata has predominantly featured on the left for Valencia so theoretically
could provide competition for Florent Malouda. But he is versatile enough
to play in a variety of roles - he is strong with both feet and is happy
to cut in from the right, and can even do a job in the hole behind a lone
Mata's goal record in his professional career is just short of one in
every three games, so Villas-Boas is getting the sort of forward that he
has been looking for - a player with excellent close control and
acceleration who can stretch the game, but who can equally drop inside to
score a goal.
This recipe served the coach well at Porto last season, where he had
Radamel Falcao in the centre with Hulk and Silvestre Varela on the
While their detractors have lampooned the players attracted by
Abramovich-era Chelsea as mere mercenaries, Stamford Bridge sides of
recent times have always shown a desire and mental strength that
contradicts that caricature.
Mata promises to be a formidable addition to that tradition - while
adding a much-needed touch of flair