Benitez hails Mata influence
Rafael Benitez believes the influence of Juan Mata could be decisive in Chelsea's bid to end the season with silverware and a return to the Champions League.
- Related Content
8. Juan Mata
Chelsea have an eighth and final opportunity for a trophy remaining - in the Europa League, where they meet Basle in the semi-finals - but first the focus is on securing a top-four finish in the Barclays Premier League and qualifying for the tournament they won in 2012.
The west London derby at Fulham on Wednesday night is the first of two Premier League matches this week which could see the Blues consolidate their place ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham, over whom they currently have a game in-hand.
While Fernando Torres and Demba Ba have struggled to be prolific, Mata's record of 18 goals this season is flabbergasting for a player who featured for Spain at Euro 2012 and the Olympics and it is his consistency which makes him a contender for player of the year.
"Juan Mata is scoring goals and giving assists," said Benitez, who was 53 today.
"When you have a second striker scoring 18 goals and giving 29 assists, it's like a striker.
"If you analyse his performance in the whole season, he could be one of the players of the year, for sure.
"When you play in a team that plays one game a week, you can be good, but Juan has played two games a week for months and he's doing really well.
"He's a very good professional and his numbers are fantastic."
The 24-year-old's brilliance has been in evidence throughout the campaign, but he also mesmerises his team-mates.
YouTube footage of Mata humbling Raul Albiol in training with the European and world champions shows their Spanish team-mates astonished by the Chelsea man's quick feet.
He has done it regularly at the Blues' training base, including on the eve of the Fulham encounter, but Benitez declined to reveal the victim.
Instead Benitez focused on the attributes which make players like Mata such coveted talents.
"Game intelligence. That is the key," Benitez said.
"He's very clever, he finds space and his quality is very good.
"He has the vision. He can score goals, he can pass. That is game intelligence.
"That's the reason why these players are more expensive. It's more difficult to find them.
"Gianfranco Zola was this type of player, not too big but game intelligence to get into the box."
Mata plays in the centre of Chelsea's three-man second offensive line, as Benitez describes it, behind a central striker, Torres or Ba.
The strike pair have just two league goals in 2013 - both for Ba - but Benitez refuses to criticise the duo.
Torres has belatedly found form in the Europa League, scoring four times in three games, but last found the net in the Premier League in December, against Aston Villa.
The £50million striker is set to start at Craven Cottage and return to the bench for Sunday's return to his former club Liverpool, with next week's Europa League semi-final first leg in Switzerland in mind. Ba is ineligible in Europe.
With players like Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar and others - Victor Moses and Yossi Benayoun - performing well, Benitez has no intention of altering formation.
"I don't know how many goals they've scored but sometimes - and I've been talking about this for months - it's more the contribution they make to the team, not just the goals," Benitez said.
"I'm quite happy in the way things are going on, because both strikers are doing well now.
"If you have Mata scoring 30 goals this year and the strikers can give assists, I will be really pleased."
Frank Lampard has again been a key figure for Chelsea this term, but the midfielder was an unused substitute in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final loss to Manchester City at Wembley.
The England international could be in the final months of his Chelsea career, with his contract expiring and the prospects of an extension uncertain, and is three short of overtaking Bobby Tambling as the club's record goalscorer.
"The main thing is the team," Benitez said.
"I would like to see Frank breaking the record, for sure. (But) if I pick him it's because I think that he's a good player.
"I'm sure he can score goals. Hopefully he can score more than two and then he will break the record.
"We will be happy, he will be happy and that means maybe we can win more games. I think he will do it."