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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Juan Mata takes his chance as Manchester United make a point at Chelsea

Spanish playmaker was deployed in his preferred No 10 role at Stamford Bridge and rewarded his manager with a fine display

Juan Mata played a key role in Manchester United's 2-2 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Reuters
Juan Mata played a key role in Manchester United's 2-2 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Reuters

A victory for Manchester United at Chelsea was always going to be highly improbable. United had lost seven and drawn one of their previous eight games at Stamford Bridge - by a distance their worst record at any opposing stadium.

On Saturday afternoon that statistic looked set to worsen as Maurizio Sarri’s unbeaten Chelsea team dominated the first half and deservedly led at half time.

Defeat and United would have trailed Chelsea by 10 points after only nine league games and been looking at their worst league start to a season since 1989-90, when the team eventually finished 13th.

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But football can surprise and United did exactly that, with two second half goals from Anthony Martial. It was almost enough to win the game.

Jose Mourinho, provoked and embroiled in a touchline fracas at the end, deserves much credit. Though he usually opts for containment away to stronger opponents, he started with a side full of attacking players including Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial.

For Mata, it was a first league start in two months, a first in his preferred central role for eight months. Despite several candidates for the role, United have been desperately short of a link player.

Becoming that man at Chelsea away was a big ask, one where he would be required to break up play and quickly pick a pass for the forwards as United counter attacked, but Mata didn’t shirk the task.

Mourinho had only played the Spaniard in 45 out of a possible 450 minutes in his five games for United at Chelsea, the only club Mata has never defeated in the Premier League from 33 teams played. By the time he left the field, he looked like he had blown that statistic.

The Spaniard, 30, seldom let his manager down. Neat and tidy, he was also applauded by the Chelsea fans he served so well, usually as a No 10, when he went to take a second minute throw-in in front of the Matthew Harding Stand.

A minute later, Mata was unlucky when the referee got in his way to intercept a ball. He complained, the referee shrugged. There would be plenty more for him to dispute.

Mata was quietly effective throughout. He nicked the ball off Willian after seven minutes, turning a Chelsea attack into a United attack.

Playing behind Lukaku, he won the ball back again after 12 minutes, but United were behind after nine minutes later when Antonio Rudiger escaped Pogba from a corner to head past David de Gea. Pogba remonstrated with Victor Lindelof in anger over the mix up, De Gea shook his head.

It was the fourth time United had conceded from a corner in 12 games this season. Not for the first time in their atrocious run at Stamford Bridge, United started as brightly in the autumnal London sunshine. Not for the first time, they had gone behind and deserved to be trailing at half-time.

Fortunes improved in the second half and United were level after 54 minutes when Martial volleyed in from close range after a fine touch from Rashford. Mata’s cross to the back post after his shot was saved was key.

Chelsea pushed back and De Gea dived in the 70th minute to save from N'Golo Kante, but on 72 minutes, Mata beat David Luiz for pace, combined with Rashford and set up Martial for his second. The Parisien, another who has wanted more opportunities, didn’t let his manager down either.

Mata was taken off two minutes after Martial’s double, the Spaniard fully deserving of his applause from both the delighted 3,000 travelling fans and the home fans, magnanimous even though their side were now losing.

He had never stopped chasing, closing opponents down and he received a booking for his trouble before he was replaced by his close friend and sometime scourge of Chelsea, Ander Herrera, to see the game out, six minutes of added on time for the second period. They came close, but Chelsea equalised from substitute Ross Barkley after 95 minutes.

Mata, Mourinho’s best passer, is most effective in the centre rather than on the wing. He deserves to stay there as United face tough games against Juventus, Bournemouth and Manchester City.

Mourinho will have loved the "Jose Mourinho" chants from the United fans who continue to back him, less so being chided by Chelsea fans where he won three Premier League titles – a point he was keen to make to them at the end.

It was his side, though, who really made a point and earned one, too.