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Oct 15, 2011

A Mata of ability

If Juan Mata had been forced to haul himself through the muddied waters of the English schools' football system a decade ago, he may well have been dismissed as a lost cause not worthy of prolonged consideration.

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Size has tended to matter to English coaches down the years and for that reason, youngsters who are small of stature have been discarded with haste and yet Mata and his Spanish compatriots are crushing the folly of such basic criteria on a weekly basis.

The brilliance displayed by Barcelona and Spain in recent years has exposed the obsession with unearthing big, powerful athletes as a blatant error and as Mata weaved his magic amid a curiously flat Premier League game at Stamford Bridge, his class was a joy to behold.

Mata was alone in trying to raise the tempo of a game that failed to get out of first gear for most of the 94 minutes of 'action', with his determination to cover as many blades of grass notable in a Chelsea team that was pedestrian in its intent.

Indeed, those of us attempting to compile notes on the first half hour of this game were doing our bit to protect the environment as our pads were entirely blank due to the absence of chances or incident in front of a muted crowd, yet Mata is the type of performer who is always liable to lift the tedium and he did just that after 30 minutes.

His brilliantly weighted pass picked out the onrushing Ashley Cole, whose chipped cross gave Daniel Sturridge the chance to head home from close range. The glory may have belonged to the young goalscorer, but Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard were among those who picked out Mata for praise in the ensuing celebrations.

That opening goal failed to release Chelsea from their shackles as they continued to stutter through to the end of the first half, yet they went in at the break with a two-goal advantage as lacklustre Everton defending allowed John Terry to head home from Lampard's cross. It was all too easy for the home side as they established a flattering advantage.

As Leon Osman struck a post with a curling shot in the opening exchanges of the second half, it seemed as if the visitors were eager to make amends for their self-inflicted wounds. In truth, David Moyes's side do not have the personnel or ability to come back from 2-0 down at a venue like this. Instead, this game resumed its mundane path and the lack of atmosphere was emphasised by the sound of the Chelsea and Everton coaches shouting out instructions to their players from the bench.

Thank heavens for Mata, who sparked into life once again on the hour mark and as he found himself in space in the Everton box, it somehow seemed inevitable that he would create another goal. This time, it was Ramires tapping in as Chelsea maintained their 100% record of scoring with each effort on goal.

A desperately disappointing afternoon for Everton was momentarily lifted as Apostolos Vellios came off the bench ten minutes from time and scored with his first touch, though visiting manager Moyes conceded the result of this game had been decided long before that late consolation goal.

"The players did as well as we can do and the mistakes we made on the goals proved crucial," said a bemused Everton chief. "We know we are up against it against top sides like Chelsea and the errors we made to hand them goals made it very difficult for us.

"To be honest, I think we have had tougher game than this at Stamford Bridge down the years and yet we find ourselves conceding three goals from what is virtually their first three attempts. I can take something from the spirit we showed today and we have to try and cut out the errors we are making defensively."

Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas looked a little dishevelled after he had gone through another afternoon of touchline gymnastics and yet he spoke eloquently as he summed up the difficulties of hitting top form so soon after his players returned from national duty.

"It was a good performance because coming off the back of international week is never easy," said Villas-Boas. "To get 3-0 ahead was the ideal situation for us and I felt we had control of the game from the moment we scored the first goal. We had a tremendous amount of possession and had to be patient in the way we went about things. The decision was made to slow the game down and wait for our chances and we were clinical when they arrived." When pressed to comment on Mata, he returned to his familiar mantra of not wishing to comment on individual players, which was a shame as he was only being asked to praise the outstanding performer in a game that had few highlights.

"The players are here to solve the puzzles and not me and I don't like to pick out one player for special praise," he stated. "Mata is just part of this team that we are trying to put together."

Quite what demanding Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich made of this performance as he made a rare appearance in his box is open to debate, as it was hardly an example of the free-flowing football he has long craved. That said, winning is a good antidote to any critic and the fact that Chelsea are now a mere one point behind Manchester United and three off new league leaders Manchester City suggests they are heading in the right direction, even if this particular performance lacked some panache.

At least they can delight in the contribution of the brilliant Mata, as he is attempting to lead the way as Villas-Boas looks to unearth a speedy, vibrant Chelsea from the shell of a side that has served the club so well for the best part of a decade.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Juan Mata - The outstanding performer on the pitch, all of Chelsea's most promising moves flowed through Mata. He is a class act who looks certain to have a big impact in the Premier League.

CAN YOU HEAR THE CHELESEA SING: The answer to that question was an emphatic NO. The sound of coaches giving their players instruction from the touchline was more noticeable than the cheers of the crowd for most of this game as the Chelsea fans lived up to their billing for being among the quietest in the Premier League.

EVERTON VERDICT: The visitors matched Chelsea for the majority of this game, but their lack of concentration cost them dearly at the crucial moments.

CHELSEA VERDICT: This was not a vintage performance, but Chelsea now have a platform to work from as the find themselves just one point behind a previously rampant Manchester United. So long as they keep Mata fit, they could have a new talisman to replace the fading force around him.

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