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Mata is the Special ‘Juan’ – a model professional’s eventful journey to 200 Premier League games

Manchester United’s straightforward 4-0 defeat of Crystal Palace on Saturday was significant for several reasons. For one, it kept United’s 100% home record this season intact. It also saw the side move top of the league, although Kevin De Bruyne’s strike for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge saw them leapfrog the Reds on goal difference later in the day. Additionally, Romelu Lukaku’s late effort saw the Belgian take the lead in the race for the Premier League’s golden boot. He has failed to score just once this season – in the home win over Leicester City.

A lesser-known stat from the Palace fixture? The fact that a certain popular and diminutive Spaniard made his 200th Premier League appearance – and as the man himself remarked in his personal blog, One Hour Behind, he could not have marked the occasion better than by grabbing the opener and his first goal of the season:

“Last Saturday we defeated Crystal Palace and I was able to score my first goal of the season, after several games with a few shots against the woodwork. I scored just three minutes into the game in a big play by Marcus, who sent the ball back and I managed to put it beyond the goalkeeper’s reach at first touch.

“Scoring goals has always been an important aspect of my game, although I’m not a striker, and I hope to help the team again this season with as many goals as I can. That 1-0 came pretty soon and it helped us a lot.

“After a long trip back from Moscow, without much time to recover, the team showed its ambition from the very first minute. The three points keep us on top of the table with City. It was my 200th game in the Premier League, I’m very proud of reaching these figures and I hope to increase them. I still need to play a few more games to catch Barry…”

Juan Mata has now been plying his trade in England for over six years, having begun his career at Real Madrid’s Castilla youth team before signing for Valencia in 2007. Four productive seasons saw many European giants line up for his signature, with Chelsea capturing the Oviedo-raised youngster in the summer of 2011. For my money, he has been one of the most consistent players in the league over the course of his Chelsea days as well as his time with United.

He was Chelsea’s Player of the Year for two seasons in a row before Jose Mourinho decided that he was a dispensable asset in the side midway through the 2013/14 season. Mata found himself behind the likes of Oscar in the pecking order, apparently due to the Brazilian’s superior work rate, and when Manchester United came calling with a £37m offer, the Spaniard did not hesitate to make the move north.

Ever since Mata’s transfer to Old Trafford, he has been a firm favourite of the fans. It is not just his ridiculously cultured left foot and overall talent that has endeared him to the supporters – it is his humbleness, professionalism and genuine affection for the club and those that follow. He is one of those who would not think twice about signing autographs, taking selfies or speaking to the people that make his occupation possible. Think of it this way – how many players could leave Chelsea for a rival such as Manchester United, and not be subjected to a tirade of abuse from Blues’ supporters? In fact, Mata was so highly regarded at the club he is often given a round of applause when the two sides meet – a rare occurrence indeed.

The Spaniard has also been involved in an array of charity work, including with Unicef, the Manchester United Foundation and, most recently, the innovative Common Goal project. Mata became the first professional to become involved with Common Goal, the aim of which is for wealthy footballers to donate one percent of their wages to those less fortunate than themselves, with the ultimate aim of creating a starting XI of Common Goal participants. So far, Mata has been joined by Bayern Munich’s Mats Hummels and Juventus stalwart Giorgio Chiellini in the programme, as well as USA Women’s World Cup winners Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, and he has implored other players to join their charitable gesture.

Aside from giving an almost infinite list of reasons as to why Mata is an all-around model professional, he has earned most of his plaudits from his performances on the pitch. He has taken part in 329 matches in major competitions since coming to England, scoring 70 goals and contributing 61 assists (FCTables.com). The list of honours he has captured is envious – one Champions League, two Europa Leagues, Two FA Cups and one League Cup, while he also managed to win the Copa del Rey in his inaugural season with Valencia.

Mata was a member of Spain’s World Cup-winning squad of 2010, and he has gone on to win 41 caps for his country – but the most recent of those has not come for a while. One can only marvel at the sheer depth of talent the Spanish have at their disposal when a player of Mata’s quality cannot get in the squad. If he maintains his performance levels throughout the season, he may persuade Julien Lopetegui to grant him a spot on the plane to Russia.

The trophies won by Mata are a testament to his footballing prowess, but arguably one of the most significant achievements of his career was winning back the trust of Jose Mourinho following a miserable six months under the Portuguese in 2013/14. Mourinho is known for favouring hard working players that can easily adapt to his system, but it certainly took many Chelsea fans by surprise when their two-time Player of the Year was deemed not good enough to start at that time, particularly after having won two major European trophies and an FA Cup in his previous two campaigns.

Many of the Stamford Bridge faithful were in a state of shock when the Spaniard left the club in January of that season to join United, and he has had no trouble adapting to his new club, scoring 37 goals and assisting 20 in all competitions while having to adjust to the management styles of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and, ironically, Jose Mourinho. This time, however, Mourinho sees a different Mata – one who is now not afraid to get stuck in for his teammates, which is a mandatory trait for a Mourinho player (with the exception, perhaps, of Cristiano Ronaldo).

Mata is now a constant fixture in the United starting XI, alongside Henrikh Mkhitaryan and one of the interchangeable Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial as part of the attacking trio behind Lukaku. He has been an important element of United’s positive start to the season so far, and it is a testament to his character that he has kept working hard enough to catch the eye of a manager who once did not rate him to the standard he deemed necessary to earn a place in his starting XI.

In conclusion, congratulations must be extended to Juan Mata on making his 200th Premier League appearance. As he jokingly alluded to in his blog post, he might be slightly too far behind to catch the likes of Gareth Barry and Ryan Giggs, but I hope to see one of the Premier League’s greatest playmakers remain in the red shirt for some time – he is now in the final year of his contract, so it would be in United’s best interests to get him tied down to a fresh deal in the very near future.

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