Chelsea will begin life without Juan Mata when they face Stoke City in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Sunday.
Despite being voted the club’s Player of the Year in his past two seasons with the club, Mata has never looked like he fitted into Jose Mourinho’s more rigid philosophy based around power and pace and his exit to Manchester United was confirmed on Saturday. Yet, Mourinho suggested that there was still some regret at the Spain international departing.
“I still think he could be important for us, he's a fantastic player,” he said, according to Chelsea’s official website. “In spite of not playing for us, especially in the last period, he could be important for us, but Juan has a fantastic opportunity; another big club wants him, in a country where he loves to be and he loves to play.”
“He tried to give everything, it was just a point of the team doing very well for the last couple of months and winning matches consecutively. Willian, Hazard and Oscar are playing really well and he wasn't playing.”
Chelsea have acted quickly to replace Mata, as well as the recently departed Belgian Kevin de Bruyne. A fee for Basel winger Mohamed Salah, who scored in both matches against Chelsea in the Champions League this season, has been agreed, although he won’t be involved on Sunday as he waits to agree personal terms and undergo a medical.
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Largely without Mata, Chelsea have been on a fine run of results: winning their last six matches in all competitions and conceding just one goal in the process. While it hasn’t always been pretty, the side are now seemingly in tune with Mourinho’s desired approach. There has been a clear shift in emphasis toward greater defensive solidity in recent weeks, a change that came as a result of performances like the one that saw them lose 3-2 to Sunday’s opponents in early December. Despite Chelsea’s improvement, Mourinho is still anticipating a tough test against Stoke.
“We lost against them and it wasn't a long time ago,” he said. “They are a difficult team; very physical, very direct, strong at set pieces and they will come to compete. I expect a difficult match, I will play with a strong team and not make big changes because we want to go as far as possible in the competition.”
Stoke have won just once in the Premier League since beating Chelsea and sit precariously just four points above the relegation zone. On Wednesday they face what could prove to be a crucial encounter against fellow strugglers Sunderland, but manager Mark Hughes has said that match will not unduly impinge on the team he selects at Stamford Bridge.
"I will go into Sunday's game with the intention of being strong, and seeing where that takes us," he explained, reports Stoke City’s official website. "We have got to be mindful about the big game on Wednesday, but that said there is sufficient time for players to recover in time for that match too.
"It's the FA Cup at the end of the day and we are all desperate to progress and remain in the competition for as long as possible."
Stoke will have goalkeeper Asmir Begovic back available, but will have to wait to see if recent loan signing John Guidetti can shake off an illness. Chelsea will be without striker Fernando Torres.
Where to watch: The FA Cup fourth round encounter will kick off at 10.30 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 2, with a live stream available via Fox Soccer 2Go.