MANCHESTER – From the training pitches to the canteen, Juan Mata has noted a surge in electricity at Manchester United’s Carrington base this week.
“It’s special,” he says. “From Monday, Mike the chef is on at us – ‘beat them, beat them, beat them’.
“I can tell you that the manager loves these games. We feel it from him, all week in this kind of massive game. He really enjoys that pressure, these big moments.”
These are encouraging times at United. For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, they look equipped for a real challenge on the Premier League title.
Jose Mourinho’s team are going toe-to-toe with Manchester City and this lunchtime (1.30pm SA time kickoff) brings United’s first fixture of the season against the established top six.
In the equivalent away matches last season, United took only two points from 15, scoring one goal.
“Something we need to improve,” Mata admits. “Definitely. We want to win this game. We don’t want to draw. We need to score, and win.”
When not fixated on Liverpool this week, Mata resumed his role as chief football philanthropist.
In his ambassadorial role for Common Goal on Thursday, he launched an exhibition at Manchester’s National Football Museum.
He is urging fellow players to donate one per cent of their salary to a fund to help some of the world’s poorest regions.
The good news is that the first English player will be announced this week – with Swansea’s Alfie Mawson supposedly keen – and a first manager is also ready to join Mata, Italian Giorgio Chiellini and German Mats Hummels.
Mata is optimistic that some United teammates will join – Ander Herrera was at the museum, as was former teammate Morgan Schneiderlin of Everton.
“I need more conversations with my teammates, explain what we do and why it would be good for them to join,” said Mata.
“I’m sure many will understand and want to be in. It’s not about obligating someone to do anything. It’s just, ‘We are doing this and if you want to join, great, because the more there are, the better the help’.”
Mata’s motivation followed a summer trip to India with his girlfriend, Evelina Kamph, an osteopath.
The charity organised a trip for a group of children from the Mumbai slums to spend this week in England, and Mata took them on an Old Trafford tour.
It was the first time these children had flown in an aeroplane or even slept in a proper bed.
Mata says: “They are from a slum. Water and electricity are very basic or not developed at all. The conditions they live in are not as we understand it in Europe. At all.
“The Oscar Foundation that we support created a classroom, English lessons, a place where they can feel safe, develop as a person and play football.
“Many are actually homeless. The people, kids, lost in the street – these are things you see in the movies, but when you go there and see, it gives you a different perspective of the other types of life possible in the world.
“Sometimes, you don’t have time to step back and think, ‘I am playing for Manchester United, I am very lucky’. It’s good to have that perspective.
“I still get angry when we lose, or when I don’t play well, I am angry with myself because I didn’t enjoy it or didn’t perform.”
Mata’s first experience of this fixture was a 3-0 home defeat – the nadir of David Moyes’ reign as manager – but he has happier memories of Anfield visits.
In 2015, he scored both goals, including a marvellous bicycle kick, as United won 2-1. In 2016, he provided the cross for Wayne Rooney to fire the winner.
His mother, Marta, looked on proudly at the museum on Thursday and will likely be in the stands at Anfield today.
Mata says he owes much to his mother and to his late maternal grandfather, Manuel Garcia Llamas. In Mata’s teenage days, his grandfather would make the 560-mile round trip from Oviedo to Madrid in a day to watch his grandson.
“He loved football and tried to play. He was not very good,” says Mata. “I felt he showed through me what he’d liked to have done.
“When I scored at Anfield, he probably went out with friends and told everyone, ‘Have you seen what my grandson has done?’
“He always used to do that! Every goal I score is for my family.”