Zola comparisons Mata to Chelsea's Juan
Published 22:30 17/04/12 By Martin Lipton
Chelsea's Juan Mata wants to beat his midfield idols on Wednesday night - to thank the Stamford Bridge fans for comparing him to theirs.
The instinctive passing game Mata has demonstrated since being moved into a central role by interim boss Roberto Di Matteo has seen a growing number of parallels being drawn with the man voted the Blues' best player ever - Gianfranco Zola.
For the former Valencia schemer, being equated to Zola is the clearest sign that he has been totally accepted by the Stamford Bridge faithful.
And Mata admitted there would be no better way of cementing that bond than by orchestrating an upset Champions League win over the finest club side on the planet.
"I know that, for the Chelsea fans, Zola is a legend," he said. "He won big games and titles for the club and was a fantastic player, who played with fun and entertained the fans.
"For me to even be compared slightly with him is a real compliment. As far as I'm concerned though, he did everything with Chelsea - and I only just got here."
Mata knows that his display against Andres Iniesta and Xavi will be watched closely in their mutual homeland - especially with coach Vicente Del Bosque beginning to finalise his Euro 2012 squad.
But the 23-year-old was not too proud to admit that he looks up to the two men at the heart of the engine room for both the Catalan club and his Euros and World Cup-winning country.
"I like attacking football, so it is inevitable that I look to see what Xavi and Andres do on the pitch," added Mata.
"When I watched them, I learn from every game they play because they cherish the ball, always play with their heads up and always want to have it.
"But I also learn from them every time we are together in the national squad. I always take time to talk to them so I know both Xavi and Iniesta are very humble, love their profession and always want to talk about football."
As for his own form, Mata conceded that he had been liberated by Di Matteo after spending the first two thirds of the season in a starting role on the left, which he did not entirely enjoy, under Andre Villas-Boas.
Mata, whose controversial goal in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham was the 12th of his first season in English football, said: "I feel comfortable on the pitch now because I can move freely.
"I wanted to be able to find spaces between lines, turn around with the ball and have time to think about what will hurt the opposition.
"In my mind, I am not a winger. So when I am able to come inside, I feel I have a better view of the pitch and what I want to do with the ball.
"Over the last few games I have given quite a few final passes which have led to goals.
"It is not easy to time them, especially when the defence is trying to come out to play your team-mates offside or cut down the angle, so you have to calculate quickly and measure the strength and direction of the ball you want to play, behind the defence but not too close to the keeper."
"You have to take risks. That's one of the jobs of the play-maker.
"It's hard, but you have to try it - to discover if you can pull it off."
As one of the new faces among the "old guard", Mata has huge respect for two of the talismans of Chelsea, skipper John Terry and 16-goal top scorer Frank Lampard.
The Spaniard said: "Terry is playing with two broken ribs - and I don't think any other player at the club would be able to do that.
"Terry means the same for Chelsea as Carles Puyol does for Barcelona. They are both so strong mentally that they are able to overcome the pain they are in.
"Terry is our emblem, the symbol of the club, because despite all he has achieved he continues to strive to always be the best. It is something you cannot miss when you are new here.
"When things were not quite right, Terry and Lampard were so important to us.
"They have been at this club a long time and always remember how important it is for us to be Chelsea, to remind us that it is the fans who suffer when we do not win.
"Villas-Boas worked really hard but we did not get the results we needed. We have now regained our confidence.
"Now we have the biggest test. We have been so close, semi-finals, the final once, but have never taken that last step.
"All of us know the potential of Barcelona but we have faith and they will have to play very well to beat us.
"I'm very confident that we can do well here at Stamford Bridge, in the first leg. We have the noise our fans make, being at home, all the conditions are in our favour.
"Barcelona will not be comfortable at all. But even if we draw, we will be confident - we scored at Napoli and Benfica, so we know we will score at the Nou Camp as well."