“I can’t wait to play. I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to playing.” Juan Mata’s eyes burn with an intensity which fills this small room above a large shop in Oxford Street. He was talking about this afternoon’s match at White Hart Lane, where, a year ago, he scored twice as Chelsea came back to win 4-2. “One of my best memories of last season,” he added with a smile.
But the smile is forced because he knows he is unlikely to start the match. So, while superficially he is talking to journalists at an EA Sports FIFA14 launch event, in reality he is addressing his manager, Jose Mourinho. Mata, Chelsea’s back-to-back player of the year, has this season found himself reduced to an understudy. Mourinho prefers Oscar as his No 10, believes Mata does not work hard enough to play in the wide positions, and has not been shy at telling the world this opinion.
What he has not done, according to Mata, is tell the player himself, not since the season began.“We had a conversation in the beginning of the season, we spoke about what he thought and what I thought, and that’s it, we did not speak about ‘You have to do this or that’. I am just doing what I think I have to do for the team. I think I am doing what the manager wants me to do. That’s it. We didn’t speak directly after the start of the season.”
Mata, whose pre-season was disrupted by a thigh muscle injury, said Mourinho had told him “to play in between the lines, to try to control the midfielders and that’s what I try to do.” He added: “I can play as a No 10, or on the wing. I will play wherever he demands. I am young and can still improve.
“I have to improve defensively. Every single offensive player has to. To be the perfect player is very, very difficult but I have tried throughout my career to improve a lot. I think Jose can help me. It’s his job to bring the best out of his players. Last season was the best in my career, but I could still have done better.”
Mata said he was going to concentrate on his own game as that was all he could influence. Asked if he saw Mourinho’s preference for Oscar at No 10 as a challenge he responded: “It’s an opinion. What I can do is what I’m doing. That’s what I have to do, run as much as I can, play as much as I can, assist and score as much as I can and that’s it.
“You can’t waste your time or your mind thinking about what people are reading or speaking or whatever. I will try to play and train at my best as I always did and that’s my only target. Keep going, keep doing what I did in this club for the last two seasons and that’s it. This is in my hands. The other things are not.”
It is a World Cup year, and competition for places in Spain’s midfield is intense. How long can Mata risk being out of the team before he seeks a move? “It is just the beginning of the season,” he said. “We have eight months to go. I believe in myself, I believe in what the season will bring to me, so I am very confident of going to the World Cup.”
Mata is bouyed, while he fights for Mourinho’s approval, by the support he receives from fans and team-mates. “The other day at Stamford Bridge I got emotional when I went to warm up [during the Basel game] and all the stands were cheering me up. That’s what I try to keep in my mind, this support. I like to do great things for the club for them .
“In the dressing room we are friends. All of them were speaking to me saying ‘be patient, be calm, we know how good you are’. And that’s very important for me as well. I feel really loved by my team-mates, by the club, by the supporters, so I’m just doing what I have to do which is be professional, respect everyone and keep going.”
He is loved, it seems, by everyone at Chelsea. Except the man who matters.
Juan Mata appears in EA SPORTS FIFA 14, available to buy NOW on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC from Game.co.uk. Get involved in the most popular mode in FIFA and start your Ultimate Team today at http://www.easports.com/uk/fifa/play.