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Mikel soaring again: Hiddink’s Super Eagle brings the perfect balance to Chelsea’s midfield

John Obi Mikel
John Obi Mikel

John Obi Mikel, Cesar Delgado

As the Fifa Ballon d’Or ceremony draws closer, the eyes of the world will be drawn once more to the world’s most predictable soap opera. The cast is well known, the props are all the same and the outcome is all but certain before the winner is announced. It is an acknowledgement of superhuman feats, but if simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then there should be an award for Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel.
His display in the 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on Sunday served as a perfect reminder of his abilities; in truth, we might be forgiven for having forgotten them – so infrequently has he featured in a meaningful way this season. Unwaveringly consistent, durable if not especially lustrous, the Nigeria international is one of Europe’s most hardy footballers.
Roman Abramovich has built Chelsea into a genuine powerhouse on the continent, achieved – at least in part – by altogether avoiding complacency that can come with a long-serving manager. We have seen Jose Mourinho twice, Luis Felipe Scolari, Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink now in a second spell, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez warm the home dugout at Stamford Bridge.
Only two players have seen them all out: Captain John Terry, and Mikel.
If Terry is Mr. Chelsea, the Lord of the Cobham Manor, then Mikel is the wise butler, a picture of servile promptitude, retreating into the shadows when unneeded but secure in his indispensability. The return of Hiddink has been greeted in the Chelsea fold with the enthusiasm reserved for the visit of a favourite uncle, and the Dutch manager has no doubt noted with warm relief that his slippers are laid out just as he wants, and his bath is run at just the right temperature.
His short stint in 2009, culminating in an FA Cup triumph and cut short in the Champions League semi-final by Andres Iniesta’s late strike, coincided with Mikel’s most productive season (in terms of appearances) at Chelsea. The 28-year-old made 34 league appearances that term, and started 10 of Hiddink’s 13 Premier League games in charge.
Much has changed since then, not least the playing personnel, but Hiddink has again found Mikel, an older and wiser version no less, useful to the cause of rescuing a team in a perilous nosedive under Jose Mourinho. Already, Mikel has played more minutes in the three games (225) since the former Netherlands boss was parachuted in than he managed the entire season prior to the Dutchman’s arrival.
While many players, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa primary among them, might have been relieved with Mourinho’s departure, Mikel looks to be the Chelsea star to benefit the most.
His partnership with Cesc Fabregas in front of the back four at Selhurst Park provided the platform for the reigning champions’ most convincing performance of the season so far. Not the sort of assertive personality to consistently dictate games, Mikel thrives with a more progressive passer, allowing him to focus on the simple things.
He completed seven ball recoveries and 78 of 82 attempted passes. Contrary to the popular criticism of his play, half of those passes were played forward, and he also demonstrated his efficiency under pressure by completing eight out of nine in the attacking third of the pitch.
After the game, Hiddink identified Mikel as the “ideal” player who can “bring balance to the team”. His plans in the team already seem cemented for the remainder of the Dutchman’s reign.
Having been heavily linked to a move abroad in the summer, it would appear reports of Mikel’s demise have been greatly overstated. With previous incumbent Nemanja Matic seemingly afflicted by second-season syndrome, the Nigeria midfielder may once again best another competitor by sheer forbearance.
Since Mikel moved to Stamford Bridge in 2006, the following midfielders have all been and gone: Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Lassana Diarra, Steve Sidwell, Juan Sebastian Veron, Deco, Oriol Romeu and Raul Meireles. The so-called ‘African Zidane’, however, remains.
Considering the Blues’ midfield has struggled for the right balance all season long, there is no better argument for a Fabregas-Mikel solution – at least till the end of the current campaign – than the Palace performance.

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