x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Nemanja Matic is making most of second go with Chelsea

Chelsea's new midfield lynchpin is thriving on his return to Stamford Bridge. Having re-signed for Jose Mourinho's side in January, Matic has become an ever-present as Chelsea have moved to the top of the English Premier League.

Nemanja Matic has become a fixture in Jose Mourinho's line-up since he signed for Chelsea in January. Ian Kington / AFP
Nemanja Matic has become a fixture in Jose Mourinho's line-up since he signed for Chelsea in January. Ian Kington / AFP

If his initial stint at Chelsea was blink-and-you-missed-it, then Nemanja Matic’s reintroduction demanded undivided attention.

The Serb, brought back in January to the English Premier League club after a few seasons with Benfica in Portugal, was handed his first league start early last month, in the crucial encounter at Manchester City.

City had been rampant this season at Etihad Stadium, winning all 11 matches, and knew victory would take them above Arsenal at the summit.

For Chelsea, then three points behind their opponents, a defeat would strike a significant blow to their title aspirations.

Matic’s inclusion represented a sizeable endorsement from manager Jose Mourinho. Not only was the returning midfielder, 25, thrust into the belly of the battle, but he would provide direct opposition to Yaya Toure, City’s most influential player.

Yet, it was Matic who supplied a titanic display, excelling in the centre of the pitch as Chelsea recorded a 1-0 triumph.

It was a performance of such promise that Twitter was flooded with plaudits, chief among those from Joey Barton.

“Matic currently out Toure-ing Yaya Toure,” tweeted the QPR midfielder. “Won’t see many do that. Bigger, stronger and quicker than him.”

Read our Q and A with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho here

As he reflects one month later on that watershed moment, Matic’s response is somewhat more understated.

“I don’t like to say I played against him, or him, or him – I prefer to say I played against Manchester City,” he said in an interview with Chelsea’s magazine.

“I have a lot of respect for every player and it doesn’t matter what his name is; I respect each opponent exactly the same.

“I wanted to show my quality and I know it was important to start well, because that helped me to feel more comfortable. The most important thing is that the people who work with me every day feel I give my best.”

It took some convincing that his best was good enough for a club with pretensions of ruling England and conquering Europe.

Having signed in 2009 from Slovakia’s Kosice, Matic, at 6ft 4ins, is an imposing, yet elegant central midfielder who struggled to break into the first team. After his first season, he was loaned to Vitesse in Holland.

Six months later, he was included in the deal that brought in David Luiz from Benfica. Playing alongside Pablo Aimar, Matic soon established himself as an integral cog in Jorge Jesus’s side, although the 2012/13 campaign ended in frustration.

Benfica lost the Primera Liga title by a solitary point, and finished runners-up in both the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League.

There, ironically, it was Chelsea who proved their conquerors. However, from the wreckage of an ultimately disappointing season, Matic emerged as Portugal’s Player of the Year.

His swift progress persuaded Chelsea to re-sign him during the most recent transfer window. Matic had developed into more than simply a tenacious ball-winner; by now he was an accomplished, deep-lying playmaker, too.

Confident that he fit Chelsea’s requirements at the base of midfield – he is a considerable upgrade on John Mikel Obi – Mourinho paid £21 million (Dh129m) to recruit Matic on a five-and-a-half-year contract.

Since then, he has been a fixture in Chelsea’s march to the peak of the Premier League.

Predictably, Matic is relishing his prominent role.

“I’m a midfielder. If I don’t take responsibility, who is going to? That’s why it was important for me to go away, to grow,” he said. “I feel different than I felt three years ago.

“Maybe if I stayed at Chelsea, I would not play like I do now; maybe I would have played better, maybe I would play worse, you never know. But for me, in that moment, it was good to go and play.

“I learnt a lot at Benfica … not only how to play that central-midfield position, but I learnt to play with pressure. There is a lot at the club, just like there is at Chelsea, and it was good for me to go.”

As transformative as was his time at Benfica, Matic’s transition to Chelsea has been helped by a compatriot and comrade.

Branislav Ivanovic, the experienced Serbian defender, has acted as mentor to Matic, guiding him both on the pitch and off, even filling in the blanks when his already proficient English fails him.

Having observed at close quarters his young countryman through two spells in west London, Ivanovic sees in Matic a “different confidence and attitude. He is the one who is leading the game”.

That respect is reciprocated, if a little exaggerated.

“We are only a small country, but for us Serbians, I would say Branislav is a bit like David Beckham in England,” Matic says. “He is at one of the best clubs in the world and he is one of our best players. In Serbia, he is a king.”

If he continues to furnish Chelsea’s midfield with high-class performances, Matic may soon enjoy similar affection in the club’s royal blue.

He comes from a particularly strong football lineage: his father played professionally in the former Yugoslavia, while younger brother Uros features for NAC Breda in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Matic may have taken slightly longer than his sibling to arrive at his current destination – when on Kosice’s books, there was a trial at Middlesbrough.

Now back at Chelsea, his focus is on solely what lies ahead. “Who knows what would have happened if I signed for Middlesbrough? Would I be here today?

“All I know is that I am a Chelsea player now and very happy to be here. I am 25 and I hope the best years of my career are going to be here.”

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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