Maintaining momentum with Mata leading the way

Posted by Phil Lythell

While three points at Norwich might not rank among the great victories in any normal season, Chelsea's 1-0 Boxing Day win at Carrow Road can be regarded as particularly important in this campaign of peaks and troughs.

With the 8-0 annihilation of Aston Villa still fresh in the memory, there was always the chance the players might slip into complacency as they travelled to one of seemingly lesser sides in the Premier League. That mindset would have been exposed by a side that have reacted impressively from a disastrous start to the season, embarking of a run of 11 matches that included just two losses since being drubbed 4-1 at Stamford Bridge in October.

Arsenal and Manchester United have both made the trip to Norfolk only to return with nothing, having been on the receiving end of 1-0 defeats. This was not a fixture to take lightly especially given Chelsea’s historic malaise around Christmastime.

Thankfully the match was negotiated with skill, determination and composure. The players trusted in themselves to keep the football and penetrate when the opportunities arose. Only one goal was scored, but with a compact defence restricting Norwich to few sights of goal, there were few alarms for the visitors as the final whistle approached.

The crucial difference was made, as ever, by Juan Mata. The little Spaniard just gets better and better with each game and rarely has an off-day even if he allowed one given his remarkable consistency. The sweet strike that decided Wednesday's game will inevitably be focused upon, but the way Mata orchestrated the Blues’ attacking game was exemplary once more.

As the chatter over player-of-the-year contenders starts to gather, the 24-year-old surely has to be one of the favourites. Robin van Persie might well lead Man United to the title but I would argue that, at present, no player has a greater positive influence over their team than Juan Mata.

As much as his ability is greatly prized at Stamford Bridge, his professionalism, desire and sense of responsibility are of equal, possibly superior, value. During last year’s Champions League campaign he was asked to perform in unfamiliar areas and did his job with all the vigour and fortitude he could muster without even the semblance of a grumble emanating from his lips or through his body language. Freed from those shackles this term, his talent has shone through as displayed Wednesday at Carrow Road.

He clearly cares about the club and his innate belief can help spur his teammates. Didier Drogba cites Mata’s exhortations that the team “must still believe” they could score as Bayern Munich celebrated the goal the Germans thought would decide the Champions League final as a key moment in that dramatic turnaround. Such displays of character in the face of oblivion make a strong case for Mata assuming the captaincy when John Terry’s time comes to an end.

Moving on from the captain-elect, David Luiz put in yet another pleasing display in midfield even if not quite as eye-catching as his virtuoso performance against Villa. The Brazilian looks liberated in his new role. His broad range of passing is brought to the fore with little risk of recrimination should he fail to hit his mark. Even more noticeable was the ease with which he won possession before turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye. As always, there were a few errors of judgement, and his shooting in the first half was wayward to say the least. But overall it was another step in the right direction. Should he continue to perform with consistency, then it might just save the club several million pounds should they deem the purchase of another defensive midfielder in January to be unnecessary.

It will be interesting to see whether he is deployed there once more at Everton Sunday. With reported target Marouane Fellaini suspended, the Toffees will be denied a huge physical presence in the heart of their side. It would have been curious to see how Luiz might have fared in direct comparison with the Belgian, though now he might be able to impose his game without having to contend with such a formidable competitor.

Should a positive result be gained at Goodison Park, the Blues will enter the West London derby with QPR with enormous confidence and the opportunity to seal a tremendous festive season will be within grasp. For Chelsea fans, so far it really has been the season to be jolly.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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