In the second of our two-part interview with Chelsea Player of the Year Juan Mata, he discusses winning his second European trophy with the Blues and finishing the season strongly…
The winning mentality which, for many years, has been one of our major strengths was never needed more than en route to winning the 2011/12 Champions League in Munich, and it was called upon once again when, having been eliminated at the group stages of this season’ competition, we entered the Europa League.
The competition may play second fiddle to the Champions League, but there were certainly quality teams standing in the way of us and another European trophy. However Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest, Rubin Kazan and Basel were all overcome, setting up the final in Amsterdam against Benfica.
‘It was a disappointment to go out of the Champions League at the group stage, but suddenly another door was opened for us, we had another aim and another chance to win a trophy,’ Juan Mata says.
‘Maybe sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward, and winning the Europa League was a perfect example of that.’
It was Mata who delivered the corner from which Branislav Ivanovic scored the late winning goal, following a similar pattern to the Champions League final a year previously, when his corner was headed home by Didier Drogba to equalise late in normal time.
‘I feel very happy of course to play a part, but with both goals I feel the credit should go to Didier and Branislav. I just tried to take the corners as best I could, and the two headers were amazing, so all the credit goes to them,’ he insists.
As the season just completed progressed, and the games began to pile up, much of the talk from outside the club was of players burning out and fatigue creeping in. However the more games we played the better we seemed to perform, and we finished the campaign by putting together a sequence of 10 matches without defeat.
‘One reason for that is we have a good squad,’ Mata suggests. ‘We don’t just have 11 good players; we have a squad of 23 or 24 players, so those who come into the side are able to help.
‘I think when you’re getting closer to an objective and you feel you can win a trophy, you all stick together. I would put it down to the mentality of the group and the opportunity to secure a trophy.’
The 25-year-old finished the campaign with 20 goals to his name, eight more than the previous season and a collection which included crucial strikes against the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham and Norwich City.
Playing as one of the attacking trio tucked in behind a lone striker, the onus is on Mata along with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Victor Moses to supply ammunition for Fernando Torres and Demba Ba.
Scoring goals though is an area of his game he has worked hard on, with the team reaping the rewards.
‘I’m not a striker but obviously the more goals I can score the better for the team.
‘Last season I changed my position slightly and I was playing in a more central role, so that’s better for me in terms of getting into the box and scoring goals.
‘It was thanks to Rafa Benitez and Robbie Di Matteo because they changed things for me. I feel I’ve improved in terms of judging when to arrive in the box, as well as providing assists, so it’s important for me to score goals.’
Newly-promoted teams often suffer from what’s known as ‘second season syndrome’, when an impressive campaign following promotion precedes a rather more disappointing one the next year. Mata, however, has followed a different pattern by adding to a notable first season in English football with an outstanding second.
There is no doubt in the player’s mind that his decision to move to Stamford Bridge was the right one after winning three trophies, and he has his sights set firmly on adding to his ever-expanding medal collection, with one trophy in particular catching his eye.
‘Winning the Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League was great, but I really want to win the Premier League title next season,’ he says.
‘If we start well I think we can do it. We have a great squad and fantastic supporters behind us, so hopefully we can do it.
‘For me it would be amazing to win four trophies in three seasons. It would be a very special feeling to win the Premier League title and I’m looking forward to hopefully doing so.’