Mathieu started his career at Sochaux and then Toulouse before becoming an Unai Emery signing for Valencia in 2009.
Personally, I didn’t know much about Mathieu prior to 2011. That’s when he had a man-of-the-match performance against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, just a few months after their Wembley triumph in the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final.
With Jordi Alba, then also a Valencia player, operating as a left-back, Mathieu was tasked as a left-winger to defend Barcelona’s Dani Alves. That combination proved deadly for the Catalans: Alba and Mathieu dominated that flank.
On 11 minutes, Mathieu sent in a cross that Eric Abidal accidentally turned past Victor Valdes and into his own net.
Just two minutes later, Pedro would equalize for the Catalans. But on 22 minutes, Mathieu would appear again on the left flank. Beating Javier Mascherano to send in another cross past Carles Puyol and Abidal, onto a lonely Pablo Hernandez who finished to make it 2-1 to Valencia.
Mathieu almost buried the game when he once again provided a pass into the box from the left, which Valdes deflected slightly, just enough to make Roberto Soldado miss horribly despite an open net.
Barcelona didn’t quit, Javier Mascherano hitting the post (!) at one point, and then Cesc Fabregas finally putting the sides level. 2-2 the scoreline, and seemingly into Barcelona’s memory banks. Alba would be signed the next season, and Mathieu 3 seasons later.
In later years for Valencia, his most notable action was scoring a goal that seemed to put Los Che through to the Europa League final, only to be undone by a late reply from Sevilla. A few days later, he knocked in a goal against Real Madrid in a 2-2 draw that proved catastrophic for Los Blancos’ title hopes.
Luis Enrique brought him to the Camp Nou to improve Barcelona’s defense. He costed about 20 million euro, but he offered to pay part of the transfer fee himself. His determination to join Barcelona was noteworthy.
Mathieu struggled as a left-back early on. In many ways he didn’t seem to fit in at the Camp Nou. A tall, super ginger, old smoker? Oh yeah, he smoked cigarettes. Doesn’t really fit the image Barcelona were trying to promote, does it?
Despite that, he did have qualities. He was good in the air and had very impressive straight-ahead speed. He found his role as a centerback, offering an entirely different profile than Mascherano.
And then came his finest moment, a goal against Real Madrid as Barcelona were chasing the treble. Lionel Messi took a free kick and Mathieu powered it past Iker Casillas, helping Barcelona secure the league title as they competed in three fronts. It was the opening goal in an eventual 2-1 win.
Perhaps almost as importantly, a week later he thumped another header into the net, this time Barcelona’s lone goal against Celta Vigo.
Despite these bright spots, the reality is Mathieu was far from a steady performer. His passing was often not up to Barcelona’s lofty standards. He got caught out of position. That straight line speed? Misleading. How often do you perform a 100 meter dash in a football match?
It was Luis Enrique’s folly to put Mathieu into the starting XI against Juventus in the Champions League this past season. He, simply put, was not of that level anymore. He could do a reasonable job, sometimes, against top opposition before. Not now.
He got killed in the first half and Juve raced to a 2-0 advantage. Lucho subbed him off and reportedly was livid at Mathieu’s performance, though again, this was also in large part on the coach himself.
How furious was Lucho at him? Well, Mathieu never played again after that half. Granted, he was listed as injured but... was he? In April, there was a report that it was not exactly a real injury, Lucho had just permanently frozen him out of the club.
And Mathieu never put on a Barcelona shirt after that, and now he’s in Portugal. Barcelona were probably glad to have him for that first season, but never more after that.