Manchester United may have spent just over £250 million since Louis van Gaal swaggered into town, but their golden gem just might have arrived six months earlier.
Question marks have always lingered over Juan Mata. Unwanted at Chelsea, he was signed by David Moyes for £37million in the Scot’s final desperate bid to save his job. Yet finally, just over two years on from his Hollywood landing, his critics are being answered.
His winner in Wednesday’s narrow 1-0 victory over Watford at Old Trafford now has the supporters dreaming of a miraculous return to the top four. And whilst Marcus Rashford is the new son of the club, a mature Mata is helping spearhead their resurgence to close the gap on Manchester City.
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According to what national newspaper you like to read, Jose Mourinho could very well be due to succeed Van Gaal at the end of the season. And that constant speculation is apparently spurring Mata to hit new heights with the Spaniard now well and truly thriving in his favoured no.10 position.
For the most part, the 27-year-old has been played elsewhere. Shunted out to the right, by both Moyes and Van Gaal. Yet now, back in the position that made him such a hero during his days at Chelsea, Mata is delivering to help save his manager from the sack and postpone, if not prevent, Mourinho taking the job.
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His free-kick against Watford was stunning. Crisply struck, curling beyond the flailing arms of Heurelho Gomes and into the top corner. It came after a tenacious performance against Arsenal and a slick display in the Europa League against FC Midtjylland. And now, as the season enters its crunch stage, Mata is driving the United resurgence.
If United are to secure Champions League football in any capacity at Old Trafford for next season, then they need Mata to continue to deliver the dazzling performances that are helping Van Gaal’s men restore some pride in the latter months of the campaign.
The midfielder donned the captain’s armband in the absence of Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick on Wednesday evening – something that was unexpected given the presence of David de Gea in goal – with his decisive contribution proof that he is able to step up when the pressure matters most.
Whether or not he can fire United into the Champions League next season remains to be seen. Even if he does, then it may not be enough. His eighth goal of the season has Van Gaal dreaming of a third year at the club but, if Mourinho does come in, then his chief playmaker may be facing a future elsewhere.
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