Moodiest of the Blues reserves special place for work-shy Chelsea wizard Mata
Attacking midfielder’s role in doubt as Mourinho makes point to insistent club hierarchy
Chelsea’s Juan Mata is spending increasingly more time warming the bench: Photograph: Nick Potts/PA
Chelsea’s win against Fulham was the type of Premier League game that leaves you brooding on the brevity of life. It’s hard to suppress the thought that you will be haunted in your terminal decline by the knowledge of all the happy, healthy hours squandered watching the likes of Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Fulham.
It wasn’t that there was much wrong with Chelsea’s performance. They dispatched Fulham with the efficiency of a vet putting an elderly dog to sleep. They did what they had to do. If anything, rather than blaming Chelsea for doing the bare minimum, you slightly resented Fulham for not making a game of it.
The two goal margin was better than Chelsea had got in the same match last season when Fulham escaped with a goalless draw at a time Rafael Benitez was chasing his first league win as Chelsea manager.
There was one point of similarity with last season’s match, which is that on both occasions Juan Mata was left out of Chelsea’s starting XI. But the crowd reaction to Mata’s absence was quite different. Last year they waved “Rafa Out” banners and chanted, “We Want Our Chelsea Back!” This year they grumbled and tweeted a bit about the missing Mata, but there was no mass dissent.
The reason for the difference is obvious: the supporters disliked Benitez and wanted him gone, whereas they like Mourinho and want him to succeed. And the emotional fact of liking or disliking the manager colours a crowd’s assessment of his decisions.
That gives the lie to José Mourinho’s remarks on Friday – repeated again on Saturday evening – that “the past is history, even my past. I’ve always said I don’t want to be protected because of what I did in the past.” Mourinho’s past is what gives him the leeway to make decisions like leaving out Juan Mata and David Luiz without provoking uproar in the stands.
It must be frustrating for Mata to discover that his brilliant Chelsea past cannot protect him from becoming the victim of a managerial power-play against the club hierarchy.
Mourinho’s indifference towards Mata was, initially, bewildering. Speculative explanations were floated. Was Mata’s association with the Spanish national team being held against him? Did Mourinho not like the idea of a key player in his team being friendly with old enemies from Madrid like Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos? It seemed crazy, but in the absence of a straightforward explanation the rumours gained ground.
However, this weekend has clarified matters. The sidelining of Mata might be Mourinho’s way of showing his employers that he doesn’t like being told how to do his job.
On Saturday evening, Mourinho reminded everyone why Pep Guardiola called him “the f*****g chief” of the press room with a masterful interview on Sky. Adopting the slightly weary tone of a parent patiently helping a slow child with its homework, Mourinho demolished criticism ventured by Ruud Gullit and Jamie Redknapp. And in the process he made the exclusion of Mata sound reasonable, even obvious.