By Ed Dove
Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel's legacy is on the line heading into this weekend’s clash with Ethiopia. Ever since exploding on to the scene at the Under-17 World Cup in 2003, Nigerians have been waiting for him to finally realise his potential.
Many had assumed that he would never blossom into the new Jay-Jay Okocha, a fluid playmaker capable of anything and everything, but there were still hopes that he could emerge as more than the stodgy defensive midfielder to whom regular Premier League viewers had become accustomed.
It was at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year that Mikel finally began to take matches in his stride, to dominate the midfield and to drive the team forward with his majestic touches and imperious vision. Perhaps the emergence of Ogenyi Onazi and the Lazio midfielder’s accomplished defensive work allowed Mikel to concentrate more upon the creative side of the game.
Turning Point | Mikel shone at this year's Africa Cup of Nations for Nigeria
But while he was a key figure for the Super Eagles as they claimed the Afcon trophy for the first time since 1994, his year with Chelsea has been mixed.
The Blues won the Europa League, although Mikel only featured sporadically in the latter stages and did not make an appearance in the final. The return of Jose Mourinho this summer initially seemed to spell the end of his stay in west London and he was linked with a move elsewhere.
He remained at Stamford Bridge, but has struggled to assert himself ahead of his fellow midfielders' formidable talent, starting only three Premier League games this term, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise were he to leave the club in the next two transfer windows.
|MIKEL'S TROPHY HAUL
2007, '09, '10, '12
Now 26, Mikel stands at a crossroads.
While no one will ever be able to take the African championship away from him, Mikel must ensure that the Champions League triumph of 2012 and the 2013 Afcon do not represent the zenith of his career.
If that potential is to be realised, then the first step must be taken against Ethiopia on Saturday. The Super Eagles have a comfortable advantage heading into the game, considering their 2-1 win in Addis Ababa back in the middle of October, but would be foolish to already assume that their task is complete.
For Mikel, a spot at next summer’s centrepiece would be particularly important for two reasons.
First of all, the memory of 2010 will certainly still haunt him. The midfielder was part of the Nigerian side that qualified for the World Cup, the first on African soil, but never actually participated in the tournament proper.
The reason was a knee injury, with the midfielder fearing that he hadn’t yet recovered sufficiently to contribute to the Nigerian effort. Three years on, this is Mikel’s long term career, this is the moment that he needs to make his mark on the international stage.
At Brazil 2014 he will be 27, in his prime; his legacy would suffer were he to once again miss out on the globe’s grandest sporting occasion.
In the context of this current Nigerian cycle, and the relative stability they are enjoying under the stewardship of Stephen Keshi, it is imperative that Mikel accompanies his troops to Brazil.
The Chelsea man is by far the most decorated member of the current squad. He is second only to Vincent Enyeama in terms of international appearances and, at 26, is the oldest of the outfield regulars. In the absence of Joseph Yobo, still nominal captain, but cast out by Keshi since Afcon, Mikel is a vital mouthpiece for the boss and a hugely influential figure in the middle of the park.
Failure to secure the required result against Ethiopia in Calabar would naturally have disastrous consequences for Keshi and his hugely promising regime. Should these nascent Super Eagles find themselves at Brazil next summer without Mikel, for whatever reason, then they risk being as a ship without a rudder.
Technically, philosophically and emotionally, it is imperative for the immediate future of the nation’s football that Keshi’s side elect arrive at Brazil intact. Mikel’s presence will doubtless be crucial for his team-mates, but Nigeria’s presence will surely be crucial for the player himself.