Abuja - John Mikel Obi’s season at Chelsea started badly. Throughout the summer, despite the impending return of his former mentor Jose Mourinho, the Nigerian central-midfielder was linked with a move away from Stamford Bridge.
Galatasaray and Internazionale were identified as his key suitors and, at times, it seemed like the Turkish giants were closing in on a transfer.
But a move never materialised.
The season began, the transfer window closed, and Mikel remained a Chelsea player.
To his credit, he began to feature regularly for the Blues and featured in victories against Arsenal, Manchester City and Schalke (twice). He even scored in the West London derby against Fulham.
Certainly, he was present for both Champions League defeats against Basel, and humiliations against Stoke City and Sunderland, but at least the Super Eagle had found a place for himself within Mourinho’s plans.
And then January came around.
Beyond the acquisition of Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah, Chelsea’s main purchase in the window came in the form of Serbian central midfielder Nemanja Matic. Ironically, this Eastern European problem solver had once been on the Pensioners’ books, but the ills of a previous era ensured that the club were forced to splash out £21 million to bring him back to Stamford Bridge.
Jonathan Wilson, of the Guardian, argued that Matic’s arrival was to bring ‘balance’ back to the Blues’ midfield—the tacit inference there being that the club’s previous options—Mikel, Ramires and Frank Lampard, failed to do this.
Mourinho, it seems, agreed, and Matic was installed as one of the side’s mainstays.
Since the 19th of January, the Serbian international has started eleven games for the Pensioners. Mikel, the main casualty of the recruitment, has, in the same time span, only started three games.
The shift in power is clear for all to see and, indeed, not hard to understand. Matic is a far more complete player than Mikel; he is quicker, more tactically astute, stronger, better in the air and more aggressive in the tackle.
He has slotted into the side flawlessly since his arrival and, in the recent demolition of Arsenal, provided twice as many assists as Mikel has all season.
Matic’s return has pushed Mikel firmly onto the bench and, sadly, to the peripheries of Jose Mourinho’s squad. The Portuguese manager has even opted to move David Luiz—a central defender who he vowed never to play in midfield—into the heart of the park at the expense of the Nigerian.
Why then, does Chelsea’s upcoming Champions League battle with Paris Saint-Germain provide Mikel a fine opportunity to reassert himself in the Blues’ line-up once more?
There are several key reasons.
First of all, Matic will not be available. Having played for Benfica earlier in the tournament, the midfielder is cup-tied for all Champions League fixtures.
Secondly, following Chelsea’s disastrous defeat to Premier League minnows Crystal Palace over the weekend, Mourinho might be convinced to change the personnel in the centre of midfield—this might mean that either Lampard or Luiz dropping to the bench. Perhaps both of them will slip out of the side.
While Paris Saint-Germain can boast elite talent throughout their first XI—their forward line of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani is particularly menacing—such a close and cagey contest may well by decided by who can dominate the midfield battle.
In this area, Paris are also strong. The trio of Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti have, together, forged a fine unit and have grown accustomed to controlling contests in both Ligue 1 and Europe this season.
Motta sits deepest, dictating play and operating stylishly at the base of the midfield, Matuidi is the engine, constantly looking to break up play and drive forward, while Verratti is adept at spreading the ball across the park (although he is not adverse to a more physical contest).
Against the mobility and tenacity of Verratti, Mikel might struggle, but should Luiz take responsibility for the fine young passer, the Nigerian could still have an important role in deciding the outcome of the contest.
First of all, he offers an impressive physical presence ahead of the back four and could, in this area, compensate for the absence of Matic. This could be particularly important when dealing with Zlatan, who loves dropping deep, retrieving the ball and being involved at an early stage of moves. Positioning Mikel ahead of the defence would give Zlatan an extra opponent to tussle with and could help ease the pressure on John Terry and Gary Cahill.
The Nigerian also reads play well and could help to anticipate the passing and movement of Motta and Verratti.
Offensively, as well, Mikel can help Chelsea.
Mourinho has largely employed reactive tactics during this season; his side have excelled when counter-attacking, but, as they showed against Crystal Palace at the weekend, can struggle when taxed with breaking another side down.
Paris will be keen to take the game to Chelsea and prove themselves before the watching world on Wednesday night; this may well play into Mourinho’s hands, but in order to take advantage, he will need the personnel to profit.
The Super Eagles talisman, as anyone who has watched Nigeria over the last 18 months will know, thrives when given a more offensive brief and is allowed to be more creative and forward-thinking with his passing.
Against Galatasaray in the first leg in the previous tie, Chelsea tried to make the most of the Turkish side’s offensive approach at home by repeatedly sending balls in behind the defence for Fernando Torres to chase down.
Given this instruction, to replicate his showing against Spain in the Confederations Cup for example, Mikel could help feed Torres and Chelsea’s fast attackers, unlocking the Parisian defenders in the process.
In theory, Mikel could contribute both in breaking down PSG offensives and in releasing the Blues’ forwards to instigate attacking moves with his precise long-range passing.
Could an effective performance at the Parc des Princes reignite Mikel’s Chelsea career and reinstall him within Mourinho’s plans?
- Kick Off Nigeria