Back to his best

Mata’s performances against Spurs and Liverpool saw him win Manchester United’s Player of the Month award for March, and went some way to repaying the faith — and money — that United invested in him in the January transfer window last year. By Euan Parsons.

When Spain playmaker Juan Mata swapped Chelsea for Manchester United in January 2014 nobody would have predicted that, less than a year after making the move, he would struggle to hold down a starting place at Old Trafford.

But the 26-year-old, who was signed by former United boss David Moyes in a bid to reverse the Red Devils’ ailing fortunes, found his opportunities limited following the arrival of new boss Louis van Gaal last summer.

Mata played just 15 minutes of football in United’s four English Premier League games in February but instead of letting his head drop, he remained focused and was given his chance to impress in March’s crunch clash with Tottenham, following the suspension of team-mate Angel di Maria.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup winner repaid the manager’s faith in him by pulling the strings in an emphatic 3-0 victory over United’s top-four rivals.

Mata did enough to keep his place in Van Gaal’s side for United’s next match — a trip to Anfield to take on bitter rivals Liverpool, who are also gunning for a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

And the former Valencia man stole the show once again, scoring both of United’s goals in a 2-1 victory that saw them move five points clear of the fifth-placed Reds. After enduring a rocky start to the season, Mata was delighted to return to form at the right time and score twice in such an important game.

He wrote on his weekly blog: “This Sunday has been one of the happiest days of my career. When you start playing football as a kid on muddy pitches, for something so simple and wonderful as having fun, you dream about becoming a footballer one day to be in a game like the one in Anfield. Manchester United and Liverpool have one of the biggest sports rivalries, and this is the biggest game in English football. Besides, the game was also important because both teams were close on the table, fighting for a place in the Champions League next season. It has been an unforgettable day for me.”

Mata’s second goal against Brendan Rodgers’ side has received widespread recognition. He latched onto Di Maria’s ball into the box before sending an acrobatic volley beyond Liverpool shot-stopper Simon Mignolet.

Mata believes the goal was one of the best he has ever scored, adding: “Many of you are asking me about the second goal and the truth is I don’t know very well how to explain it. It’s something you just don’t think... It’s more a resource you use when you understand it’s better to shoot the ball as it comes rather than trying to control it and keep the play. Angel’s pass invited to do so.

It’s one of the best goals of my career for sure, among other things because it happened in such a massive game. And it helped us win.”

Mata’s performances against Spurs and Liverpool saw him win Manchester United’s Player of the Month award for March, and went some way to repaying the faith — and money — that United invested in him in the January transfer window last year.

Mata’s brace against Liverpool took his tally of English Premier League goals to 31 following his move in 2011 from Valencia to Chelsea, where he was named the club’s Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.

© PA Sport