Juan Mata on his way to Old Trafford in $61 million deal.

Juan Mata the hero for Chelsea, as Spaniard sparks second half comeback (video)

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LONDON — It has been a rough start to the season for Chelsea’s Spanish midfielder Juan Mata.

But the diminutive attacker from Northern Spain showed all his mettle on Saturday, as he climbed off the bench at half time to turn the London Derby on its head.

Mata, 25, was playing in just his third league game of the season and made a massive difference to Chelsea’s offensive offerings at White Hart Lane.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has publicly criticized Mata’s recent displays, but chose to bring on the playmaker to change Chelsea’s fortunes in the crucial Derby against Tottenham. And it worked.

“I think this is the way players have to say ‘I want to play'”, Mourinho said. “Conversations with you [the press] is not good, the agents blah, blah, blah, behind is not good. Good is this, the effort that he made against Swindon [in midweek] and the way he changed the team in the second half. And because of that I am a very happy manager.”

(MORE: All-square between the master and his apprentice, as Chelsea fight back for draw at Tottenham)

As for Mata himself, he was delighted to help the team produce a rousing second half comeback, after Spurs dominated Chelsea for vast swathes of a fiery first half.

“Well I just tried to do my best for the team,” Mata said. “From when I came on and that’s what I’m going to try and do until the end. Obviously everyone wants to play. As I said last week, I’m a professional and I enjoy all my teammates and what I want to do is enjoy on the pitch and today I did it.”

Mata played a part in the pivotal moment in Chelsea’s comeback, as his 40-yard left-footed free kick found John Terry at the back post, who headed home the equalizer in the 65th minute. Mata wheeled away in delight and punched the air, he deserved that moment after battling it out with Tottenham’s giants in midfield and forcing his way between the lines of defense and midfield.

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Jose Mourinho is delighted with Mata’s resurgence.

He certainly caused Spurs plenty of problems, and Andre Villas-Boas agreed that Mata’s arrival changed the game.

“Mata played very well, I think he changed the game. He is an extremely creative player, I think he had the impact on the game that Chelsea and Jose wanted. And made another assist for JT to score.”

(MORE: Tottenham 1-1 Chelsea: Lively derby ends in a draw)

Mata’s teammate, Petr Cech, could see things from both the managers and players perspectives, but is over the moon to see the Spanish magician back to his best and pulling the strings for Chelsea.

“If you aren’t doing exactly what he asked you to, then you can’t argue with him, because he is the boss,” Cech said. “It’s a simple as that. But it’s really nice to see Juan play very well the last couple of games and that he looks happy and fit.”

The Spanish international wasn’t even in the squad for Chelsea’s last Premier League game against Fulham, but he proved just how essential he is to their attacking rhythm, as those around picked up their game after half time. Oscar looked much more comfortable cutting in from the left, while Frank Lampard and Ramires also looked at ease dovetailing to support Mata’s roaming runs towards Tottenham’s defense. Last season Mata was the creative hub of Chelsea, scoring 21 goals and adding 29 assists to lead the way.

(MORE: Jose Mourinho fuming at Jan Vertonghen, as Fernando Torres sees red)

On Saturday, Mata made Chelsea a better team with his second half arrival and as Mourinho alluded to in his post-match press conference, Chelsea really should have won the game had Fernando Torres not been controversially sent off.

“In the second half we played very, very well,” Mourinho said. “We played tactically well, we played with a very good spirit and strong mentality. It leaves us in a situation where people are getting their confidence and I think this second half is probably the best we’ve played. Also the first half against Hull City but I think this is our best performance.”

And ahead of their Champions League game in Romania against Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday, Mourinho revealed that Mata will start, after starring in Chelsea’s determined second half comeback.

“I can say this 72 hours in advance, that he plays against Steaua Bucharest. He won that by himself.”

Mata is back in the picture at Chelsea, he’s done it the hard way. But he’s shown the ‘Special One” just how special he can be, with a terrific cameo display.

Wenger worried over Sutton’s pitch heading Monday’s clash

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 16:  Pundits Paul Merson (4L) and Matt Le Tissier (2L) take part in a training session alongside Paul Doswell manager of Sutton United (L) and players during a Sutton United FA Cup media day on February 16, 2017 at the Borough Sports Ground in Sutton, Greater London. Sutton United are due to face Arsenal in the Emirates FA Cup Fifth round on 20 February.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The story of Monday’s encounter between Arsenal and fifth-division Sutton United will be whether the minnows can overcome the mighty Gunners.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” against Blackburn ]

However, Arsene Wenger already fears a bigger challenge within the game, one that concerns his players’ safety.

Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane features an artificial surface, which is largely uncommon for English and most European venues regardless of club standing.

“First of all the pitch. Secondly their enthusiasm. Thirdly that we are not ready mentally for a big fight and think subconsciously that it doesn’t matter,” Wenger said ahead of Monday’s FA Cup meeting in South London.

In preparation for their meeting with the U’s, Wenger had his side train on their own indoor artificial field on Friday.

“Look, ideally we would like to play on a normal pitch. Competition is as well to deal with what you face, and we’ll face an unusual pitch and we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.

“We practice inside [on Friday] because we have an artificial pitch. It’s not the same as it’s a dry pitch, and at Sutton I’ve heard that’s a wet pitch, they water it before the game. So it will be much quicker than what we have.”

Leipzig beats ‘Gladbach 2-1, cuts Bayern’s Bundesliga lead

Leipzig's scorer Willi Orban, center, and his teammates celebrate their side's 2nd goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between RB Leipzig and Hertha BSC Berlin in Leipzig, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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BERLIN (AP) Leipzig held on for a 2-1 win at Borussia Moenchengladbach to cut Bayern Munich’s lead in the Bundesliga to five points on Sunday.

[ MORE: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara wins second Serie A match ]

Emil Forsberg scored one and set up another for the promoted side to end its two-game losing streak and stay on course for Champions League qualification with its 14th win of the season.

[ MORE: Bielsa makes Ligue 1 return, joins Lille as new manager ]

`Gladbach `keeper Yann Sommer pulled off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Marcel Sabitzer early on, but he was powerless to stop Forsberg from breaking the deadlock after half an hour played.

Sabitzer and Timo Werner played their way through the static `Gladbach defense and Werner laid the ball off for the Sweden midfielder to fire inside the bottom left corner.

The home side was given a lifeline when Marvin Compper brought down Lars Stindl and referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the spot, but Peter Gulacsi saved Thorgan Hazard‘s penalty before the break.

More poor defending allowed Werner grab the second 10 minutes after the break, firing inside the far post after Forsberg played him through.

Jannik Vestergaard pulled one back with a powerful header from a corner to set up an exciting finale. However, six minutes of injury time were not enough for an equalizer.

Leipzig had kicked off to a chorus of whistles from the home fans, who then mostly stayed silent till the 19th minute in protest against the visiting side. Huge banners in the north stand said “Traditional club since 1900” – an apparent protest against Leipzig, founded in 2009 when Austrian energy-drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz rebranded a fifth-tier team with his company’s livery before financing its steady promotion through the lower leagues.

COLOGNE 1, SCHALKE 1

Cologne stopped Schalke’s progress but the point was enough for the visiting side to overtake `Gladbach on goal difference in 10th.

Alessandro Schoepf got the visitors off to a flying start in the second minute with the help of the left post, and Leon Goretzka hit the post after half an hour with the home side still struggling to get into the game.

But Anthony Modeste equalized before the break with a fine strike inside the far post, and might even have scored again just minutes later, when his hesitation allowed Benedikt Hoewedes get back and clear.

Guido Burgstaller came closest to a winner for Schalke in the second half, his shot just wide of the far post after beating the goalkeeper.

Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” after gritty FA Cup win

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates with a fans as he runs onto the pitch as he scores their second goal during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United at Ewood Park on February 19, 2017 in Blackburn, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Danny Graham gave Manchester United some early worries on Sunday at Ewood Park but the Red Devils ultimately responded and booked themselves a place in the FA Cup quarterfinals.

[ MORE: United books place in quarterfinals after Zlatan’s winner ]

Despite the adversity from both the Blackburn Rovers supporters’ roars and the deficit, United fought their way back into the tie after Marcus Rashford equalized on 27 minutes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic completed the comeback with a quarter hour remaining.

[ MORE: Kane hat-trick sends Spurs past Fulham ]

Ibrahimovic entered the match after the hour mark along with Paul Pogba, which gave United the final lift it needed to get past Blackburn.

Jose Mourinho spoke highly of his group following the 2-1 victory, particularly of his squad’s “attitude” after trailing inside the opening 20 minutes.

“I think the attitude of every player was really good,” Mourinho told BT Sport. “With a different attitude, we wouldn’t win. They gave us a really hard match and I am really happy with the players, of course.”

“I have important players on the bench and I can try to make them have an impact, but that doesn’t always work,” he said. “I spoke with Paul and Zlatan and they came with the right attitude.”

While Mourinho was understandably pleased with the result, the Portuguese boss gave Blackburn their credit for the hard-fought bout.

“We deserved to win, but Blackburn also deserve to go to Old Trafford,” he said. “But they can now focus on a very difficult Championship. A second match at Old Trafford would have been a disaster.

“I think the referees had everything under control and were really calm and even the ball boy to my right was really good.”

United will now move on to face Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup quarterfinals, easily making for the most exciting fixture in the last eight of this season’s competition.

La Liga & Serie A: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 19: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona shoots on goal next to Martin Maximiliano Mantovani of CD Leganes during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and CD Leganes at Camp Nou stadium on February 19, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Barcelona 2-1 Leganes

The Blaugrana were just minutes away from another disappointing result but Lionel Messi rescued his side on the brink of time with an opportune penalty kick. The Argentine attacker netted a brace on Sunday, which helped keep Barcelona within a point of league leaders Real Madrid at the top of Spain’s top flight. Messi entered his name on the scoresheet in the fourth minute before Unai Lopez equalized for the visitors in the 71st minute. The loss for Leganes keeps the club just two points above the relegation zone through 23 rounds of play.

Real Sociedad 0-1 Villareal

Samu Castillejo’s stoppage time winner kept Villareal in a top six position after the team struggled to find its way in the attacking third for much of the match. The Yellow Submarine currently sit six points out of fourth place Atletico Madrid, while Sociedad holds a slim, two-point margin over Villareal.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Celta Vigo 3-0 Osasuna

 


Roma 4-1 Torino

A pair of goals on both sides of halftime helped propel Roma to its 18th win of the season on Sunday, while keeping the Giallorossi within seven points of Juventus at the top of Serie A. Edin Dzeko continues to pay dividends for Luciano Spalletti’s side after scoring early for Roma, while Mohamed Salah, Leandro Paredes and Radja Nainggolan each booked their place on the scoresheet in the rout. Maxi Lopez provided the visitors with a consolation in the 84th minute, as Torino remain in ninth place.

Chievo 1-3 Napoli

Napoli’s potent attack continues to score goals at an astounding rate, and the third place side is still very much alive in the title race. The visitors jumped out to a 3-0 lead before the hour mark before Chievo finally pulled one back by way of Riccardo Meggiorini. Their three goals on Sunday move Napoli to a total of 60 for the season, which is six more than Roma.

Pescara 5-0 Genoa

The last place side picked up its second win of the season on Sunday after scoring three goals inside of the opening 45 minutes. An own goal from Lucas Orban in the fifth minute kickstarted Genoa’s misfortunes, and Pescara continued to pile it on from that point.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna 0-1 Inter Milan
Sampdoria 1-1 Cagliari
Udinese 1-2 Sassuolo
AC Milan 2-1 Fiorentina