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Mata: Strength of rivalry with Liverpool shocked me

JUAN Mata has admitted he was given a rude awakening about Chelsea's rivalry with Liverpool but was determined not to be caught cold in tomorrow's clash at Stamford Bridge.

Mata could have been forgiven for underestimating the Reds following his £23million move to Stamford Bridge last summer, with the Anfield club having been nowhere near challenging for the Barclays Premier League title in the previous two years.

But the fierce rivalry that had existed between the clubs for the best part of a decade ensured Liverpool consistently raised their game against Chelsea.

They duly won three of the sides' four meetings last season - the only exception being the FA Cup final.

Mata played in Chelsea's home defeats in the league and Carling Cup and was desperate to put that right in the kind of game he admitted they needed to win to pose a serious title challenge.

"Playing against Liverpool is a tough game, as I realised last season when we lost in the Carling Cup, in the league as well," Mata told Absolute Radio's Rock 'n' Roll Football in an interview to be broadcast later today.

"I think we have to be strong at home.

"We are feeling really good playing in Stamford Bridge with our supporters, with their support.

"It's going to be tough.

"But I think if we want to win this Premier League, we have to be at the level in these kind of games, against massive rivals."

It would no exaggeration to say Chelsea's hopes of triumphing both tomorrow and in the title race could depend on the performance of Mata, who has arguably been the best player in the country this season.

Yesterday saw him rewarded with a recall to the Spain squad after he was inexplicably omitted for their World Cup qualifiers last month.

Arguably not as outrageously gifted as his new partners in crime, Eden Hazard and Oscar, Mata has managed nevertheless to be more effective than both combined.

It is the 24-year-old's intelligence which arguably makes him stand apart and it may be no coincidence that he has combined his football career with degrees in physical education and marketing.

"I think, if you are playing football, the study can help you to think quicker," he said.

If there is one area Mata, Oscar and Hazard need to improve, it is helping out a defence that has conceded a whopping 14 goals in the last six games.

He said: "We're playing with freedom, Ed and Oscar and me, we all three love to play with the ball, and our relationship with each other is very good.

"But we know that, when we are defending, we have to be in those free positions to defend.

"So, attacking, we play with freedom, but talking about defence, we have to be very, very straight with the team."

That was certainly not the case in Wednesday's Champions League victory over Shakhtar Donetsk, in which Hazard in particular hung Ryan Bertrand out to dry.

With Ashley Cole still injured, Bertrand is likely to start at left-back again tomorrow, although he should be helped by having captain John Terry back alongside him.

Manager Roberto Di Matteo said: "Ryan is a great asset, great player for us. He's still a young player and probably he hasn't got as much experience as Ashley, especially in a high-pressure game like it was on Wednesday.

"There was maybe a little bit of tension within the team because of the importance of that game.

"But he'll be a better player for that.

"That's part of a professional career. You're going to be thrown into the deep end at times and you have to learn how to cope."

Liverpool striker Luis Suarez likes to do much of his work out wide and will need no second invitation to exploit any weakness there.

Di Matteo said: "He's a magnificent player, isn't he, and a very dangerous player, a big threat for any defenders that have to play against him.

"They [Liverpool] don't have many other strikers but I think they have some young, talented players, and also some experienced players."