Will Mourinho come to regret selling Juan Mata?
Damn you, Special One.
This was supposed to be my weekend off. I had scheduled a tasty Saturday brunch with the part of the family that I can actually stand and that can actually stand me (it's only one person). Friday night had seen Arsenal bust out a 4-0 thrashing of Coventry in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Lukas Podolski bagged a brace and leaped ahead in the annual Arsene Wenger "almost like a new signing" derby after a four-month injury layoff. I was richly entitled to a Friday night filled with sweet top-of-the-league dreams, so what in the name of the polar vortex was I doing on Saturday at 8 a.m. at the bar of New York's Football Factory ordering a pint of Stella to calm my jangling nerves? If I told you that I was suffused with the romance of the Cup and wanted to show my support for Kidderminster Harriers in their quixotic bid to upset Sunderland, a team 79 places above them in the English soccer hierarchy, I'd be as honest and even-handed as, well, Jose Mourinho. The brutal truth is that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic-Juan-Mata-to-Manchester-United-Syndrome (PTJMTMUS) and needed to make liquid peace with a weapons-grade transfer that now threatens to blow up the delicate balance of my Premier League life.
Just when I thought the steaming pile Sir Alex bequeathed to David Moyes was no more than a hay-scented footnote to the hard chargers at the front of the pack, the plodding United mare is back to clog up the rail. And, to continue my horse racing analogy, if Robin van Persie's injuries don't heal soon, they should shoot him and send him to the glue factory. Just a suggestion. As good as Mata is -- and I put him into the gasp-inducing Prem midfield pantheon alongside Mesut Ozil and David Silva -- United's title hopes need a lot more than one silky Spanish playmaker with a spectacularly manicured "Sons of Anarchy" beard to overcome a 14-point deficit. But just the fact that the Old Trafford beast is stirring again has to be worrisome to anyone who has borne witness to United's previous resurrections under Sir Alex.
Mourinho, however, has decided that, unlike Ferguson, Moyes doesn't have the mojo to transform United into anything more than an outside contender for the final Champions League spot. So what's the harm in helping out a manager who might reciprocate in the summer by pointing Wayne Rooney in the direction of Stamford Bridge?
The danger is the message the deal sends to the rest of the soccer world. By breaking their transfer record for Mata, United are saying that they will do whatever it takes to claw their way back into Premier League relevancy and that they have the money to do it. If I'm Brendan Rodgers, I'm praying that Mata fits in at United about as well as Andy Carroll fit in at Anfield. Or Upton Park. Or anywhere outside of a Boyzone concert.
Granted, Liverpool is still six points clear of its despised rivals in the battle for the Annual Arsenal Trophy -- or, as it's more commonly called, fourth place -- and a United team that can't see off Sunderland on penalties in the League Cup is hardly the kind of opponent to make Luis Suarez tremble in his boots. But what if Mata is just the tipping point and other top-echelon players were to follow him to Old Trafford in the next few days?
Brendan, may I recommend a warm glass of milk and a couple of sleeping pills before bedtime? If nothing else, you have to admire Mourinho's Machiavellian timing. It's not as if he didn't know weeks ago that Mata's lack of pace and power made him the wrong fit in Chelsea's blueprint for world domination -- the Spaniard played the full 90 minutes only twice this season and was an unused substitute in the 3-1 victory over his future side.
But, by delaying the sale until United were in complete disarray after dispiriting back-to-back losses at Chelsea and Sunderland, the Brilliantly Evil One was able to take advantage of Moyes' desperation and drive Mata's fee into the stratosphere -- the $56 million price tag yields a handsome profit of $21 million over what Chelsea originally paid for him -- while also strengthening United for the remainder of their schedule, which coincidentally includes games against Man City and Arsenal.
No wonder Mourinho was known as "The Godfather" in his stint at Real Madrid. Can't you just see him putting a comforting arm around Moyes after the Jan. 19 evisceration and whispering into his ear: "David, I am prepared to help you in your moment of need, but someday -- and that day may never come -- I will need a favor in return." We won't even discuss what happened with the horse's head.
Of course, Mourinho doesn't feel as benevolent toward all his managerial brethren. Despite declaring before the season that "I respect Arsene Wenger a lot and I will show my respect always," selling Mata to United was a metaphorical finger in the Frenchman's eye.
First off, Wenger has long professed his admiration for Mata and even tried to sign the Spanish international in 2011 before Chelsea swooped in and dropped off $35 million on Valencia's doorstep. And even though Mata would have no place in North London, given the existence of technical virtuosos such as Ozil and Santi Cazorla, Wenger, who can spot a conspiracy invisible even to Oliver Stone, couldn't help but accuse Mourinho of alternative motives in the deal with United.
"I am surprised they sell a great player to a direct rival," whined the Frenchman, elevating United about five spots in the table with the word "direct." He then went to great pains to differentiate the Mata transfer from Arsenal's craven sale of Robin van Persie to United in the summer of 2012.
"Van Persie had only one year to go [on his contract]," Wenger explained. "He was 29 [Mata is 25] and had played here for some time. I wanted to sell him to Juventus, but he had decided to go to Man United, and, at the end of the day, you need the agreement of the three parties."
Let nobody say the Arsenal manager isn't adroit at arguing both sides of a ridiculous statement. As for Mata, it's safe to assume he's thrilled with the opportunity to play first-team soccer again, although he has yet to reveal whether he listened to the little boy inside of him screaming for Manchester United.
It's probably more likely that he listened to Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, who told him that, with the World Cup looming, he needed to feature regularly at a top club to stake his claim to a place on the defending champions' squad.
It would make for a heartwarming tale if we could believe that Mourinho had morphed into the Altruistic One and was acting with Mata's best interests at heart -- karmic reward for someone who had given so much to his club that he was the two-time Chelsea player of the year -- but this is a man who has joyfully grabbed Sir Alex's mind-game playbook and made it his own.
Mourinho understands the long-term impact of the impending financial fair play rules, and he certainly can do the basic valuation math if Mata were left to just rot on the bench. In one masterstroke, he has put money in the Chelsea coffers and annoyed the managers of the two sides currently above him.
Is there anyone outside of Stamford Bridge not hoping Mourinho's cunning deal-making ends up biting him in the ego? Remember, there's always the chance that, with Mata feeding van Persie and Rooney a steady stream of defense-splitting passes, United could go on a run -- if Moyes also brings in another top-tier defender or two and maybe a holding midfielder... Well, a man can dream, can't he? After all, even Mourinho isn't an infallible judge of talent. In 2007, he sold another blue-chip player he felt was too fragile to succeed in the physical system he deployed at Stamford Bridge.
How did that work out for Arjen Robben?