x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

FA Cup: Chelsea's Juan Mata splits time between winning medals and exploring London

When he's not doing yoga or watching the Rolling Stones in concert, the the 24-year-old Spaniard is leading Chelsea into Wembley Stadium for a matchup with Manchester City, writes Jonathan Wilson.

A few months after joining Chelsea, the Russian full-back Yuri Zhirkov admitted that he had not "really been into London".

He lived in his nice house in the suburbs, trotted along to the training ground and back and got on the team bus to go to matches. The Houses of Parliament? The Tower of London? Buckingham Palace? A West-end show? A museum? A famous restaurant? Nothing.

It was a revelation that offered a sad glimpse of how constrained the lives of many footballers are. London may not be to everybody's taste, but if you really cannot find any recreation in one of the world's great cities then, to borrow the well-worn line from the celebrated English writer Dr Samuel Johnson, you are probably "tired of life".

Was Zhirkov simply not interested? Was he so dedicated to training he could not bear any distraction? Was he intimidated by a metropolis in which he did not speak the language? If nothing else, it was a reminder of how abnormal the life of a footballer can be.

And then along comes Juan Mata, a player who seems abundantly "normal", to shatter that illsuion.

Even in the artificial surroundings of a post-match mixed zone – where players can talk to the press – he has an engaging ordinariness, as though he were one of your friends who just happens to be really good at football.

If the photographs on his Facebook page are anything to go by, he spends most of his free time visiting London's famous landmarks.

"Every day off I try to explore a different part of the city," said Mata.

"I jump on the Tube or a bus, go for a walk. I've visited different museums, art galleries and big important buildings. I saw the Rolling Stones and Coldplay at the O2 [Arena] – I'm getting into English music."

He is somebody who seems curious, determined to experience all the English capital has to offer, and who has the energy to do so.

Energy has been his hallmark. Since joining Chelsea in the summer of 2011, Mata has made 107 appearances in all competitions, 14 of them as substitute. In that time, he has scored 30 goals and registered 52 assists. And yet he vies with Oscar as Chelsea's most diligent player when it comes to tracking opponents.

That he is still contributing in Chelsea's hectic end of season run-in – something he puts down to frequent yoga sessions – is an achievement in itself, particularly when you consider last summer he represented his country at the London Olympics, just weeks after helping Spain win Euro 2012. The previous summer he had been player of the tournament as Spain won the European Under 21 Championship and the year before that he was in the squad that won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Yet he is still going strong, relishing another visit to Wembley Stadium for Sunday's FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. It will be his third appearance at the home of English football for Chelsea, to go with one appearance there for Spain in a friendly defeat to England.

"Even when I was playing in Spain I realised that Wembley was one of the most important football stadiums in the world because of all its history staging the big matches and so many finals," he said. "Then, after I came to England, I experienced what it was like to actually play there."

Another London landmark ticked off the list.

His former Valencia teammate David Silva, who fulfills a similar role for City with his intelligence and probing passes, is unlikely to recover from a hamstring injury in time to play against him.

"He is so talented," said Mata of his compatriot. "His left foot is absolutely amazing. I love the way he plays - always with the ball looking for assists and goals. So I know it will be very difficult for us if he is able to play."

There are no such fears over Mata's fitness. Aside from the virus that kept him out of the league defeat at Southampton, he seems indestructible, an industrious presence who just keeps ploughing on, keeping the ball, creating chances, scoring goals, winning matches and medals.

At 24, he has already won a World Cup, a European Championship, a Uefa Champions League, a Copa del Rey and an FA Cup.

A league title is next on the list, but for now another FA Cup – and perhaps a Europa League, where the Blues have reached the semi-finals – would be worthy additions to the collection.

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