Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published January 25, 2014
no holds barred
What's the Mata with Man United?
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Above: The Red Devils looking dejected after Swansea knocked them out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford on Jan 5. The club and fans are hoping that Mata, for whom United has reportedly paid a transfer record fee of £37 million, can turn its fortunes around. - PHOTOS: ACTION IMAGES, REUTERS

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JUST when you think that things have hit rock bottom for Manchester United, the club plunges even deeper into the abyss. The expected arrival of Spaniard Juan Mata from Chelsea cannot come soon enough. The Red Devils are in freefall, and fans are hoping that the 25-year-old attacking midfielder can provide the fillip to salvage what's left of a disastrous season so far.

In all honesty, the past month has been the worst in recent memory for United, having kicked off the new year with three straight defeats in as many separate competitions - all by an identical 1-2 scoreline.

A laborious home win over Swansea City gave the beleaguered manager David Moyes a little bit of breathing space, but that familiar grimace was soon back on the Scot's face as he watched Chelsea tear his side apart with alarming ease last Sunday.

The last straw for some was the timid manner in which United crashed out of the League Cup semi-final three days ago. Lowly Sunderland came to Old Trafford and proved more than a match for United, triumphing after a nail-biting penalty shootout.

The Manchester United of old would have gobbled up such opponents with ease long before the final whistle and spat out the bones for good measure. The team under the Moyes era is sluggish, despondent and seems to have forgotten how to win a game of football.

The retired manager Alex Ferguson was in the director's box as usual for this last game. Even he looked perplexed as to how the players - many of whom he groomed over the years into the superstars they are today - have lost both their drive, nerve and spirit.

Some of the losses this month have been excruciating to watch for the United faithful. Tottenham took maximum points at Old Trafford for the second straight season, while Swansea won at that stadium for the first time in its history as the Welsh side knocked the Devils out of the FA Cup tournament at the first hurdle.

The worrying thing is, many of these opponents didn't even have to play at their very best to do so. The swashbuckling style of football that United has been renowned for over the years has deserted them this season.

When Mata meets his new teammates for the first time once Chelsea finalises his transfer, he will likely not see many smiles or be greeted with high fives. This is not the time for celebrations of any kind at the Theatre of Dreams. That United has to dig deep into its coffers and break the club's transfer record by paying a reported £37 million (S$78.8 million) for Mata's services in the middle of the season is evidence of the level of desperation at the moment.

Mata is a player used to success. The playmaker was Chelsea's player of the year for the last two seasons, and deservedly so. He is a proven match-winner whose natural ability can rip defences to shreds. Why, then, would he leave the Blues - one of the favourites to claim United's English Premier League (EPL) trophy in May - for a team languishing in seventh place and 14 points behind leaders Arsenal?

Simply put, he needs games - and fast. He has been deemed surplus to requirements under new Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. He wasn't even making the substitute's bench on occasion, a frustrating scenario for someone injury-free and arguably in the prime of his career.

The World Cup in Brazil is also looming large, and Mata wants to make sure he is included in his country's squad for the trip to South America this June.

If you ask even the most optimistic of United fans, they will say that this season is not quite over yet. The top priority for Moyes must be to at least finish fourth in the EPL and seal a spot in next season's Champions League. Liverpool and Tottenham are in joint-fourth at the moment, six points ahead of United. That is a mountain that doesn't seem too big to climb.

Speaking of the Champions League, Europe's elite tournament resumes next month with the Red Devils facing off against Greek side Olympiakos in the Round of 16. No one quite expects United to win this trophy, not with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and holders Bayern Munich in the hunt as well. Getting to the quarter-finals or even the semis would be seen as a monumental achievement for a United team in disarray.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Mata should be on his way soon, strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are due to return from injury, and some are hopeful that even the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini will finally arise from his slumber and start playing some decent football.

Looking at the fixtures list, only one of United's last eight games is against a team in the top six, which ironically is Moyes' former club Everton. Given how this season has panned out so far, securing fourth place would be akin to winning a trophy in itself.