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How the gulf has widened between the two former youth stars since their first encounter at the Fifa U-20 Championship in 2005

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By Ed Dove

Last Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge was a night for reunions. Pre-match, much was made of the two European heavyweights, Barcelona and Chelsea, crossing swords once again, testing their mutual mettle before a baying public in such a high stakes match up. Similarly, since the game, focus has been on the ‘darker side of Drogba’; last week reminded everyone of the petulance that accompanies his ferocious talent, and publics worldwide have been reunited with images of the striker sprawling around, face contorted in another wince of footloose agony. One reunion that has slipped beneath the radar has been that of Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel.

This may appear a bizarre suggestion as you search for the significance of a reunion between Barcelona’s footballing deity and Chelsea’s powerful midfield enforcer. Take a moment to recall the summer of 2005, and a dramatic evening in Utrecht.

On the 2nd of July, at the Galgenwaard Stadium, Argentina and Nigeria contested the final of the FIFA World Youth Championships, today referred to as the U20 World Cup. Going into the match, the two nations had experienced very different tournaments. A defeat to USA in their opening game aside, Argentina had been imperious. After besting Germany to qualify from the group, Colombia, Brazil and Spain were cast aside as the Albicelestes marched to the final. Nigeria, on the other hand, were only just beginning to demonstrate their superiority; a semi-final rout of Morocco coming after an arduous, if exciting, tournament. Scraping through the group phase, it took a late winner against Ukraine and a 10-9 penalty defeat of hosts Holland to guarantee progress.

In the final, before over 24,000 fans, it was Argentina who emerged victorious, two Lionel Messi penalties either side of a Chinedu Obasi strike giving the South Americans their fifth U20s title. Messi was the undisputed star of the tournament – with six goals he won both the Golden Shoe, for top scorer – as well as the Golden Ball – heralding him as the tournament’s top player, an award won 26 years previously by compatriot Diego Maradona.

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The recipient of the Silver Shoe was Nigeria’s number 9, John Obi Mikel – a player who, like Messi, had been influential in ensuring his team’s place in the final. As the star among a particularly talented generation of Flying Eagles, Mikel, like Messi, was seemingly setting himself up to become one of the world’s finest players, and to reach the absolute peak of the game.

Messi, for whom superlatives ran dry a long time ago, has realised his potential many times over. Authorities such as Miguel Delaney’s The Football Pantheon had placed Messi among ‘football’s genuine immortals’ before he had even reached 25. His natural ability is comparable, and perhaps superior to, the very best players the game has ever seen, and his trophy cabinet, lined with team championships alongside personal accolades, is unparalleled for a man of his age. The question seems to be ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Messi will end the polemics of Maradona or Pele, and be considered as the greatest player the sport has ever produced. Spanish football expert Sid Lowe suggests regularly that the time may soon be upon us.

It is perhaps unfair to compare Mikel’s career to that of Messi; as Xavi once said ‘I don’t ever want to compare Messi to anyone else – it just isn’t fair. On them.’ Still, as the two men met again at Stamford Bridge, I couldn’t help but compare the last seven years for players who dazzled together, in the summer of 2005, before taking very different routes to a rainy evening in West London.

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I wrote recently of the stunted progress of Nigeria’s 2005 generation, many of whom would go on to win silver at the 2008 Olympics, again only to be thwarted by Argentina, and specifically, Lionel Messi. It is hard to assess a player’s progress compared to the perceived trajectory they ‘ought’ to have taken. Yet, with John Obi Mikel, there remains a lingering doubt that he hasn’t yet, and perhaps never will, dominate the top level of football in the way he could have done. Some blame has been apportioned to José Mourinho, and on a broader level, Mikel’s decision to sign for Chelsea instead of Manchester United.

Indeed, the case of Joe Cole suggests that among his many qualities as a manager, Mourinho might be lacking the ability to capitalise on, and develop, a talented young prospect. Cole arrived at Chelsea in 2003 having played for West Ham’s first team from the age of 17. His prodigal talent had been noted from an early age, and under the tutelage of Tony Carr at Upton Park, he was heralded as the purest, most exciting, naturally talented footballer produced by England since Gascoigne, or even Hoddle before him.

Cole’s move to Chelsea was meant to signal his arrival on the big time, the West London club supposedly providing the platform for his precocious ability to fulfil his seemingly unlimited potential. It never truly happened. Some sterling performances for England at the 2006 World Cup and a contemporary renaissance at Lille aside, it’s fair to say that Cole never quite realised the trajectory set out for him as a youngster in East London. His three league titles at Chelsea were won by a mercurial talent who decorated teams, without truly inspiring them.

Mourinho’s difficulties with Joe Cole are well documented, and there is a sense that the manager bullied the free spirit from the midfielder, forcing him to play much more of a responsible game, restricting his flair and creativity. In hindsight, it’s hard to argue with Mourinho, Chelsea’s greatest ever manager, but questions do remain about quite what a player Joe Cole could have been.

John Obi Mikel provides us with a parallel case. It’s easy for English and European audiences to forget that the player was originally an attacking talent. As a youth international, Mikel began to blossom into an all-round midfielder – displaying intelligent ball retention, forceful tackling, and a certain guile, allowing him to distribute the ball creatively and effectively. At the U20 World Cup, playing an attacking role (and wearing the number 9 shirt, as mentioned above) Mikel eclipsed talent such as Fabregas and Aguero, playing similar roles. Some Nigerians began to see in Mikel the eventual successor to Jay Jay Okocha, fanciful as it may seem today.

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Then Mourinho has his say. Mindful, maybe, of the impending retirement of Claude Makélélé, Chelsea’s defensive lynchpin; seduced, perhaps, by the stereotype that pervades, much maligned recently by the French media, of the physical West African defensive midfielder; the manager opted to use Mikel in a withdrawn role in front of the defence.

Despite being criticised early in his career in England, the result of a combination of reckless tackling, poor discipline off the pitch, and below average performances on it, Mikel began to show his worth in West London, winning the club’s Young Player of the Year award in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, ZonalMarking.net campaigned for Mikel to get the credit he deserved for his improved performances. Citing his ‘tremendous physical presence’, as well as his aerial dominance and intelligent possession football, the web site suggested that Mikel was ‘perfect’ for the deeper role and that his performances here permitted Michael Essien’s attacking qualities to be unleashed.

Enough to prompt a change in perception, yes, but doubts remain as to whether Mourinho’s remoulding of the Nigerian was the optimum way to profit from his raw natural talent. As Mikel won Chelsea’s Young Player of the Year in 2008, Messi was featuring in UEFA’s team of the year, as Mikel lifted the FA Cup in the summer of 2009 - his second, Messi lifted the Champions League - his second. Such comparisons deserve a context, certainly, but it’s hard to look beyond the reality that while Messi breaks every scoring record under the sun, Mikel is left picking up scraps for Raul Meireles.

Some suggest it could all have been so different had it been Manchester United, and not Chelsea, who had ended up with the midfielder back in 2005. The circumstances of Mikel’s transfer from Lyn Oslo are still somewhat shrouded in controversy, but when the dust settled, despite photographs taken in a United shirt, the road led to Stamford Bridge.

It’s impossible to know exactly what kind of player Mikel would be now had he opted for Old Trafford. While the cases of Anderson (for now), and Bébé (perhaps unsurprisingly), suggest that a spot under Alex Ferguson’s wing doesn’t guarantee a realisation of potential, it’s generally hard to argue with his track record. Prodigal yet precocious talents such as Nani, Rooney, and Ronaldo have become superstars under his tutelage, being allowed to develop and utilise their breathtaking attacking instincts, while simultaneously understanding what it means to contribute to the team effort and the common objective. These three players have married natural ability with absolute drive and accomplished efficiency. Youngsters under Mourinho simply haven’t developed in the same way; with the exception of Essien, already fairly established at Lyon, and arguably Arjen Robben, who perhaps only truly flourished since leaving West London.

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It is a far cry from Messi in Catalonia. Picked up by Barcelona in 2000, his talent was nurtured, and his abilities honed at La Masia. Despite requiring treatment to combat a growth hormone deficiency, Messi’s ability consistently shone through, astounded in fact. After three years learning the ‘Barca way’ he was unleashed upon the defences of La Liga. His ascent is yet to stop. ‘Nature’ is clearly in effect here, but it’s hard to deny that ‘nurture’ has also greatly influenced proceedings.

Earlier in the season, with the arrival of the more defensively inclined Oriol Romeu another La Masia product, Mikel was dropped from the starting line up. Were Romeu to develop and adapt to the Premier League, there is scope for the Nigerian to adopt a more attacking role in the team, one which he has publically announced that, for Nigeria at least, he prefers. But Mikel is arriving at something of a crossroads; not as mobile as Ramires, not as assertive as the returning Michael Essien, the irresistible talent of Josh McEachran may well be added to the mix as well next season. It’s sometimes hard to see exactly where Mikel fits.

Against Barcelona, on Tuesday, he excelled. On paper, the most defensive minded of Chelsea’s midfield three, Mikel often moved up the pitch, ahead of Lampard and Meireles, to close down Xavi. Once the action had moved from the Spanish playmaker, Mikel would drop again and contribute to shielding the defence. For this game, at least, Mourinho’s re-modelling proved ideal, as Messi and Barcelona’s band of travelling maestros were frustrated. Roberto Di Matteo will be looking for a repeat performance come the second leg in Spain.

This night, history will be forgotten, with the only focus being the future and a place in the European Cup final on the 19th of May. In the middle of the park it won’t be the battle of the two former prodigies, two creative talents battling to upstage the other, it will be the battle of Messi against a blue mass, one of which, the biggest, will be the man he bested back in 2005, John Obi Mikel. Maybe it’s better that way, for this night at least.

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