IF there is an open-top bus victory parade tomorrow along London's King's Road, one player will be able to get dropped off practically at his door. After a fabulous first season at Stamford Bridge, Spanish international Juan Mata has not just taken Chelsea to his heart; he has taken himself into the heart of Chelsea.
"I try to think of it as me being in a city not just to play football but also to live and to enjoy everything about it," he says sat sipping an espresso in a King's Road cafe ahead of tonight's potential leap into immortality.
"I can walk down the street and get to know the city. I can travel on the Underground or on whatever transport I want. Everyone just gets on with their life and I can just be part of that normality."
He puts his hood up against the changeable London weather and looks just a like a thousand other foreign twenty-somethings having the time of their lives in a city that, in his words, "offers everything".
"The Spanish love the vintage clothing markets and the second-hand record shops. I buy records for my uncles who are fans of British music from the 70s. When I tell them I'm here in the King's Road, or in Carnaby Street, they love to hear that -- it's that meeting of posh and punk and the Mod connection," he says.
To add to the theme, Mata has been nicknamed in the dressing-room 'Johnny Kills' -- making him sound like someone Malcolm McLaren might have managed -- but the moniker was given to him by Daniel Sturridge from a literal translation of his name.
It's all a far cry from English players who have ventured abroad only to ringfence themselves in a mansion house in an exclusive suburb and fly in friends and family to relieve the boredom. Or the "little Seville" that Jose Antonio Reyes' family created for him at Cockfosters, north London, to protect him from all traces of the host culture when he was at Arsenal.
Mata, who was studying for a business degree which is now on hold since he moved to London, still eats dinner at nine and watches Spanish satellite television instead of 'Match of the Day' but from going to 'Michael Jackson The Musical' in the West End to visiting the Tate Modern, he's loving London, all of which he believes has helped him adapt immediately to his new working environment.
"The two things have run parallel -- to score in my first game and make a good confident start, and to feel good in the city and in the club from day one were both important," he says.
What could then easily have derailed such great beginnings was the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, the man who persuaded him not to wait any longer for Barcelona, Arsenal or Liverpool to make their move and to join Chelsea. It was a blow losing his main sponsor but Mata just kept calm and carried on -- the team's style changed but his importance to it did not.
"Villas-Boas had an idea of a more European style of football with the team trying to look after the ball and build from the back -- but any change is either seen as good or bad depending on the results," he says.
"I'll always be grateful to him. And he did everything he could for things to work out. Robbie (Roberto Di Matteo) came in and the priority became just to win because we were right on the limit. It was a needs-must situation. We had to win any which way and we changed in terms of if there was a long-ball option on then we would take it.
"We won the first game in the FA Cup with Robbie and then the next and the next and with four or five games won consecutively, something that we had not had before, things changed. It is that confidence that makes you win. The mental side of the game is so important."
Not only were there assurances from the new man that Mata would remain a key player but he was moved to the centre, where the previous summer he had led Spain's U-21s to European Championship success. His survival may owe something to the belief that he needs to learn from English football as much as it needs to learn from him.
"I still have to adapt more to the English game," he says. "I can keep playing my football but also learn things from the English style."
I ask him if the English sense of fair play has been exaggerated. Having seen Phil Bardsley's stamp on him in his first full game of the season at Sunderland retrospectively punished, he believes not. In Spain, when an incident is missed by the referee, it is rarely revisited. And Mata counts the Premier League's Dennis Bergkamp and Ryan Giggs among his boyhood heroes.
"I have swapped shirts with Giggs. I think he is one of the best wingers in Europe over the last 15 years and I would love to play against him at the Olympics," he says. He also marvels at Wayne Rooney's "ability to be the battering ram No 9 and the intelligent No 10 at the same time" and at team-mate Frank Lampard's "incredible 20 goals-a-season record from midfield", sustained over a decade.
There is a little spark of each of those players in the 24-year-old, who could end the season with five major honours if he adds the European Cup, the European Championship and the Olympics to the FA Cup and the U-21 European Championship titles already won.
Beating Barcelona in the semi-final doesn't dislodge his debut goal, his Fans' Player of the Year award or the FA Cup final win from Mata's three high points of the season, but he agrees, in terms of drama, it was unmatchable.
Mata was substituted late in the game as Chelsea looked to protect what they had. He had suffered during the match sacrificing his natural game of running with the ball to running without it, and he would suffer even more as a nervous spectator.
"I was very nervous. And then when Fernando Torres scored, we just exploded. And when the final whistle went, I ran straight for him because he deserved it. It's a lovely feeling at the Nou Camp to see our supporters up in the top tier celebrating and happy, as the rest of the stadium empties."
And he knows how the players who played the 2008 final in Moscow were feeling. "To have the chance to remove that thorn in the side is great. And it's not just them -- the club, Roman, everyone. It's important to put the first Champions League in the trophy cabinet." (© Independent News Service)