Manchester United started their season well with a 2-1 victory over Leicester, despite several players returning later to training following the World Cup.
Jose Mourinho had spoken in the week about the conversations he was set to have with the squad to see which of them felt ready to play on the Friday night.
Paul Pogba was a surprise inclusion, given he has only started training on Monday, but there were several players you could have predicted.
Forwards like Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata hadn’t gone to the World Cup, while others, like David de Gea and Victor Lindelof, had seen their countries knocked out in Russia earlier on.
Yet if we had listened to reports when Mourinho was first appointed two years ago, Mata’s starting place would have come as a surprise. After selling Mata to United when he was Chelsea boss, some pundits and sections of the media claimed the Spaniard wouldn’t still be at the club come the end of that first transfer window.
Following the Community Shield victory over Leicester in 2016, former Liverpool player Danny Murphy was certain that Mata would be leaving.
Mata had been a substitute in the game at Wembley but with Leicester bombarding the penalty area in the final minutes with high balls, Mata was replaced by the taller Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Murphy didn’t see it that way.
“You don’t do that unless you are trying to send a message,” he said. “They have a lot of history at Chelsea and he [Mourinho] has embarrassed him [Mata]. He is basically saying to him you are not important and he has done it publicly. I can’t see him still being at the club at the end of August.”
As it is, Mata has gone on to play 83 games for Mourinho at United, with both the manager and player happy with the current situation.
Speaking to The Republik of Mancunia in the annual charity preview, Mata discussed how settled he felt at the club.
“It is an incredible feeling to be a Red and I am very proud to represent this great club,” he said. “It is important to have a great atmosphere in the dressing room within us so to play with friends like David and Ander is great.”
When he first joined the club he was shown around the museum and trophy room. Mata’s former clubs, Valencia and Chelsea, had won 10 league titles between them when he was there, while United have won 20. The visit made its mark on him.
“It was great to see all the trophies and memories of all the fantastic players that played for the club,” he continued. “And that’s what makes this club so special. The stadium is incredible and as soon as you step on the pitch you feel the special atmosphere of a venue that hosted many massive games through the years. So many fantastic players have played in there.”
In an era where money can be the deciding factor for some players, Mata gives the impression that he really values the opportunity to play for United. His work with Common Goal certainly indicates that cash isn’t the be all and end all for him. He gives a percentage of his salary to the organisation, and encourages other players to do the same, to “try to make this world a more balanced place to be.”
The Spaniard is one of the few players who is well-liked by rivals, as well as United supporters, which is rare, but testament to what a good guy he is. When asked to take part in RoM’s preview over the summer he didn’t hesitate to get involved, knowing what an impact his association to it could have on the total raised for the Trafford Macmillan Wellbeing Centre.
There’s no denying United fans have had a soft spot for him since he first signed in January 2014 and quickly created a song about him being the greatest player in the Premier League.
“Football without fans wouldn’t be what it is,” Mata continued. “Fans are really important for us, so to feel their love and support makes feel very happy and grateful. They are incredible.”
It’s not just Mata’s appreciation for the fans or his respect for the history that puts him in their good books, but his understanding of the culture of the club.
When asked which former United player he wishes he could have played alongside, there was no hesitation.
“Eric Cantona. There is something really special about him and I would have loved to play with him. The King.”
Mata is in the final year of his current contract with the club, which will expire next summer when he is 31. Reports in the media have suggested he may well return to Valencia on a free, the club he played at for four seasons before joining Chelsea.
However, Mata wasn’t ready to rule out to the possibility of him staying at Old Trafford until he was due a testimonial.
“I feel good and think that there are still some years of football in my legs and head, so maybe!”