It’s time for Man United’s underrated magician to get some praise

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The evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring feats and Paul Pogba’s justification of his world-record transfer fee have unsurprisingly been the biggest talking points of Manchester United’s season. But that’s doing a huge disservice to Juan Mata.

Only Wayne Rooney has contributed to more Premier League goals than the Spaniard since his arrival from Chelsea at the start of 2014. Having scored 25 goals and produced 15 assists in the league, the 28-year-old’s fantastic 40 has made him arguably the club’s most important player.

That’s reflected by the Red Devils’ form when Mata is out of the side. In the 15 Prem games he’s played this season, United have taken 31 points (2.06 per game).

By contrast, the five league games the midfield magician didn’t feature in saw Jose Mourinho’s men claim just eight points (1.6 per game).

But, as useful as they are, it’s not just about stats with Mata. He’s a bonafide big-game player for United.

Time and again he’s made the crucial impact in the big games. His double in a 2-1 win at Anfield in March 2015 was the biggest moment in United’s successful push for the top four. Meanwhile, Mata’s equaliser in last season’s Emirates FA Cup final was the catalyst for United’s first major honour in three seasons.

That’s been part of the Spaniard’s game throughout his career. Without his away goal at Napoli in February 2012’s Champions League tie, Chelsea don’t go on to lift Europe’s biggest prize for the first time in their history. It’s as simple as that.

And the Burgos native’s experience has helped him to influence and improve the young players around him.

Nowhere was that more evident than in United’s first fixture of 2017, as they won 2-0 away at West Ham United.

The former Valencia ace linked up superbly with Marcus Rashford to score the opening goal – and the teenager, who has struggled to replicate his best form for much of this season, looked vastly improved alongside Mata.

Add to that the decorated midfielder’s passing range – arguably the best at Old Trafford since the departure of Paul Scholes – and his willingness to track back and thwart opposition attacks, and there’s little doubt he’s a crucial feature of the club’s current revival.

Even Jose Mourinho, who sold Mata to the 20-time English champions back in 2014 has realised the huge importance he has to the team. The ‘Juan Love’ banner at Old Trafford is sure to be flying for some time yet.

Next up for Man United is the visit of Reading in the Emirates FA Cup, where it’s 2/9 for the hosts to record an eighth straight win.

Meanwhile, Mata and co. continue to boost the Red Devils’ hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League, with Evens on offer for them to make the cut.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing

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Dave Burin

Dave graduated with an MA in English Literature at Durham University, and worked in marketing before joining the Ladbrokes News team. A Man United fan and avid groundhopper, he’s also an ardent follower of Rugby League. You can usually find him at a ground near you, clutching a big cup of tea.