MANCHESTER - A season that began with a serious question mark over Juan Mata’s relationship with Jose Mourinho will end on Tuesday night. Rather appropriately it will be in Stockholm’s Friends Arena, as the pair look to win the Europa League trophy.
Unlike Manchester United, Mata has won this competition before, with Chelsea in 2013. Eight months later he left for Old Trafford in a £37.1million deal having been frozen out by Mourinho after the Portuguese coach returned to Chelsea.
When he followed Mata to United last summer, there were understandably concerns over the midfielder’s future at the club. Mourinho’s first game in charge did not bode well, with a bemused Mata sent on as a 66th-minute substitute in the Community Shield against Leicester and then replaced before full-time.
Nine-and-a-half months on and the outlook is very different for the Spaniard. Mata has made 41 appearances despite missing 10 games with a hernia that required surgery at the end of March.
The 29-year-old has become one of Mourinho’s most reliable performers this season, providing 10 goals for the third season in a row.
Mata would be happy to sign a new contract at United. His deal is due to run out in the summer of 2018, although the club have an option to extend it by a further year.
"Yes, I’m happy here," he says. "Since I came here it has not been the greatest moment in the club’s history. It’s been a different approach and a new stage after Sir Alex Ferguson.
"We’ve had a few managers, different players coming and going, but I feel really happy to be at this club. I feel privileged to play for Manchester United. It is something when I’m old I will always be proud of."
But can he understand why people questioned his future under Mourinho?
"I cannot control what people think," says Mata, who can just about recall Mourinho breaking the ice with a joke about the Manchester weather. "But I can control myself and my aim, and my head is focused on trying to win trophies.
"There are no problems with the manager. We have a good relationship and I will always say nothing ever happened, we didn’t have an argument or anything like that. There was too much talk but I believed in my ability."
A Champions League winner at Chelsea and World Cup winner with Spain, Mata has spent this season travelling far and wide in the Europa League.
That in itself is a good enough reason to beat Ajax in United’s 64th game of the season to re-join Europe’s elite.
"Normally it’s dinner time and we’d be round the table having something to eat and then the TV would be put on," he says. "We’d watch the Champions League and we’d be wishing next season we are there. It’s a competition this club should be in every season.
"Hopefully it’s Tuesdays and Wednesdays instead of Thursdays. We have the chance to win the biggest thing since I came to the club. It’s been a long season, but when you have a game like this, all the fatigue and tiredness in your legs and body goes away. It’s not a normal game, it’s a final."