As the Chelsea players sat in their Stamford Bridge dressing room contemplating their first Premier League defeat of the season at the hands of Manchester United, Fernando Torres would almost certainly have been feeling particularly hard done by. Any sense of injustice he felt, however, would surely have been dwarfed by that of his countryman, Juan Mata.
On 72 minutes the Spanish playmaker was withdrawn in favour of Ryan Bertrand as the nine-man Blues, weakened beyond repair by the dismissals of Branislav Ivanovic and, four minutes earlier, by that of Torres, tried to make the best of a desperate situation.
The ploy never looked likely to work and so it proved, with Javier Hernandez poking home from an offside position with 15 minutes left to secure United what could prove a crucial three points.
Defeat was harsh on Chelsea who, after a shambolic opening, had roused themselves impressively to wipe out a two-goal deficit and momentarily look likelier to win the game. But being substituted was an even more undeserved fate for Mata, after he had produced the latest in a series of virtuoso displays which have established him as the talisman of this young and exciting team.
Prior to kick-off, the visit of Sir Alex Ferguson’s men was widely expected to be the stiffest test yet of the Blues’ burgeoning title credentials. With 12 minutes gone, two goals down and in apparent disarray, it was one they appeared to be on the brink of failing miserably.
Leaders were urgently needed but, with John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba all absent, whether such figures would emerge was far from clear.
Emerge they did, however. David Luiz overcame an extremely shaky start to begin to exude calm and drive his team forward. Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel gradually gained a foothold in midfield, while Oscar and Eden Hazard started to test the United defence with their skill and vision.
And at the very heart of the Chelsea revival, just as he was at White Hart Lane and at the Emirates Stadium, was Mata. Initially starved of possession, the little Spaniard soon began to pass and probe, drawing United defenders towards him before spinning away into space, hunting for a moment to get his team back into the match.
When he got his opportunity a minute before half-time, he took it in some style. David De Gea’s misguided step to his left as Mata ran up to take his free kick on the edge of the visitors’ area may have created a space just inside the post, but a truly sublime effort was still required to find it.
Having given his team hope at the interval, Mata then allowed Chelsea to begin to dream of a memorable comeback victory, darting in behind Jonny Evans before bringing down Oscar’s looping pass with a quite outrageous piece of close control to keep the ball in play. His initial centre was just about repelled, but seconds later Ramires headed home an Oscar cross to level the scores.
But it was not to be Mata’s day as a mixture of indiscipline and ineptitude cut short his afternoon. Ivanovic was at best clumsy and at worst foolish to bring down Ashley Young, while Torres was on the end of a truly mystifying decision by Mark Clattenburg, although in truth he might have been given his marching orders just 20 minutes in for a high challenge on Tom Cleverley.
Even in defeat, however, Chelsea have plenty of reason to be optimistic. They remain a point clear at the top of the Premier League and, having met Sir Alex’s perennial contenders on equal footing at Stamford Bridge, they can no longer be regarded as unknown quantities. This season’s title race now unquestionably will be contested by three horses rather than two.
And even more encouragingly, it appears the steely mentality which has helped bring about the most successful period of the club’s history over the past decade will not be affected by a changing of the guard. Drogba is gone. Terry, Lampard and Ashley Cole will all follow in due course, but it seems Mata and the rest of Chelsea’s new stalwarts have the heart as well as the skill to compete.