Juan Mata: The next Zola?
Can the diminutive Spaniard emulate Zola to become Chelsea's greatest ever player?
When it comes to selecting the greatest player ever to have played for Chelsea, discussions are always restricted to the same few names.
The late 50s saw Jimmy Greaves score 132 goals in 169 appearances for the Pensioners before he went on to become Tottenham Hotspurs' greatest ever goalscorer.
The 60s and 70s will be remembered as the years of the uncompromisingly ruthless tackles and inspirational leadership of Ron "The Chopper" Harris and the stylishly swashbuckling skills of Peter "The Wizard of Os" Osgood.
The 80s saw Kerry Dixon score 193 goals in nine years at Stamford Bridge, falling just short of Bobby Tambling's record of 202 goals in the 60s. Dennis Wise captained Chelsea to their FA Cup successes in 1997 and 2000, and featured an incredible 445 teams during the 11 years he spent with Chelsea.
Much of the club's successes in the 21st century can be traced back to the money pumped into the club by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
But that does not take anything away from players like Frank Lampard (the man who scored the two goals that gave Chelsea its first league title in 50 years, and then went on to become the greatest goal-scoring midfielder in the history of the Premier League), John Terry (an inspirational captain who put his body on the line for the club time and again) and Didier Drogba, the Ivorian striker whose goals were so crucial in opening the floodgates of domestic success and ushering in an era of trophy-laden glory at Chelsea.
However, it is generally a matter of very little dispute that the greatest player ever to have played for Chelsea is a man who, at 5' 6'', stands head and shoulders above the names already mentioned.
That man is Gianfranco Zola, a player who spent just seven years in London, but left innumerable memories in the minds of the Stamford Bridge faithful. That he won the FWA Player of the Year in 1997 despite not playing the full season does not even begin to do justice to the genius of the Italian veteran.
Blessed with a low centre of gravity, the ability to change direction in a flash, brilliant ball control, wicked ability from set pieces and a genuinely humble demeanour, Zola wasted no time in becoming a firm fan-favourite at Chelsea and the scourge of Chelsea's Premier League opposition who were routinely left with no answer to his brilliance.
Capable of scoring goals of breathtaking skill and beauty, he dazzled audiences time and again with his sublime flicks, excellent vision and ingenuity on the pitch, and was the central figure in a Chelsea team that won five trophies (including two FA Cup title in 1996-97 and 1999-2000) during an era in which domestic football was dominated by Manchester United and Arsenal.
It is unfortunate that Zola left Chelsea for Cagliari in his native Sardinia before the era of Abramovich ushered in tremendous league success at Stamford Bridge, and he will always be remembered as one of the best players never to have won a Premier League title.
However, this glaring red mark on his resume does not tarnish his reputation in the slightest; Gianfranco Zola will forever be one of the greatest foreign imports in Premier League history.
He may not have won a Premier League title, but the league - and Chelsea, of course - will count itself lucky beyond measure to have witnessed the magic of Zola at his finest.
As has been mentioned, Chelsea fans have had a lot to celebrate in the years following Zola's departure, with the arrival of Jose Mourinho signalling the dawn of a fantastic new era at the club.
However, similar to the way United fans will always call out for a player who can remind them of George Best despite all the glories that the club has enjoyed in recent years, Chelsea fans cannot be blamed for wanting to watch someone of the ilk of Zola ply his trade at Stamford Bridge.
United fans had to wait 20 years for a player remotely close to Best in terms of footballing ability and charisma - that someone being a certain King Eric - so supporters of the Blues should count themselves lucky because the club currently has a player who can not only rival the legendary Zola's ability on the pitch, but could go on to become the most influential player in a team that will look to establish itself as the dominant force in English football over the next few years.
That player is Juan Mata, and this writer strongly feels that whenever the time comes for the Spaniard to take a curtain call on his career at Stamford Bridge, he will bow out as one of the club's greatest ever players, if not the greatest.
Mata has only spent two years at Chelsea, and the consideration of this fact might prompt some of you to wonder whether it is too early for one to place the weight of comparisons with Zola on the shoulders of the 25-year-old, but one look at the way he has settled into life in the Premier League, and the the influential role he looks certain to play under Mourinho in the years to come, suggests that we are only at the beginning of what will be a very fruitful association between club and player.
The manner in which Mata adapted to the rigours of the Premier League and the contrast its pace and physicality presented to the more tactical and possession-based Spanish football he was used to was very impressive to say the least, and the £23.5million signing wasted little time in bedding in at his new club, scoring on his debut against Norwich City and consistently putting in performances of the highest quality.
Despite being capable of playing on either wing and delivering crosses of deadly accuracy and effectiveness, Mata's best position is in the centre of the pitch, behind the striker, a position from where he can dictate play and bring wingers and full backs into play.
Boasting incredible ball control, silky skills, fantastic vision and the ability to play team-mates clean through on goal with incisive passes, Mata has been a crucial player for Chelsea over the last two years.
In two years, the Spaniard has amassed a scarcely believable 59 assists in all competitions, scoring 32 goals himself.
His creativity and knack for crafting goalscoring chances from nothing have helped carry Chelsea across the finishing line on numerous occasions, and while the likes of Drogba, Cech and Lampard received all the plaudits for the club's victorious Champions League campaign in 2012, Mata was undoubtedly the player pulling the strings in midfield.
In what is perhaps his biggest contribution yet in a Chelsea shirt, he took the corner that Drogba scored from to equalize against Bayern Munich in the final of the Champions League that season.
In a sort of poetic irony, Mata was responsible for the eerily similar set piece from which Branislav Ivanovic scored to help Chelsea beat Benfica in the final of the Europa League last season, which means that the two most important goals scored by Chelsea in the last two seasons both involved the Spaniard.
Mata was also named Man of the Match in the 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the final of the 2011-12 FA Cup, and his ability to rise to the occasion and play his very best football against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs showcases the class of the player.
Mata has had an extremely impressive start to what fans are hoping will be a long association with the club - indeed, there are very few bigger clubs than Chelsea that can attract the player who has professed a love for the city of London, and the club would probably loath the idea of losing their talismanic number 10 midfielder - and it looks extremely likely that he will continue to be a central figure in the club's footballing plans for the future.
A few weeks after he began his second stint in charge at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho was rumoured to be willing to sell the Spaniard to Barcelona, or even involve him in a part-exchange deal for Wayne Rooney, but Mourinho and Chelsea quickly moved to quash those rumours. Mourinho has brought Marco van Ginkel and Andre Schurrle with him to the Bridge, and may yet bring Rooney in, but it is fair to say that Juan Mata will continue to be one of the first names on his team-sheet in the coming season.
Mata has been voted Chelsea Player of the Year at the end of each of his two seasons at the club, and all the signs point towards him continuing to perform at the very highest level, week in, week out.
Being surrounded by the illustrious attacking talent of the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Schurrle will only help Mata improve as a player by allowing him to exercise his creative instincts to a larger extent, and Chelsea's counter-attacking style of play under Mourinho should suit him perfectly.
It is still early days in the Chelsea career of the former Valencia midfielder Mata, but if he goes on to stay with the club for the next few years - and there should be no reason for him to want to leave a club that will be expected to win every tournament it participates in - he could go on to become one of the true greats in the club's history.
Fans still chant the names of Osgood, Greaves and Zola with the highest levels of reverence, but the name on their lips over the next few years could just be that of Juan Mata.
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