By Lolade Adewuyi
John Obi Mikel scored his first goal in the English Premier League on Saturday evening to cap Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Fulham at Stamford Bridge.
The Nigerian who is nearing a seven-year sojourn at Stamford Bridge had never scored in the Premier League in 185 matches. His two goals had come in the FA Cup.
Even though it was another more prolific African Samuel Eto’o who was expected to deliver the goals for the Blues, Chelsea’s match winning strike came off the boots of the unlikely Mikel.
Brazilian Oscar had gotten the Blues ahead early against their London rivals. The Blues held much of the possession but could not find the second goal to keep the game safe. Spaniard Fernando Torres came on for Eto’o, who is yet to find the net in three matches, to try to find the goal.
Mikel volleyed a shot from John Terry’s flick off a corner kick in the 84th minute to send the Blues 2-0 up and move temporarily to the top of the table, before Sunday’s other matches involving Arsenal and Tottenham.
The Nigerian midfielder had been threatening all through the game, busting forward in unusual runs through the middle.
“Today’s game was all about winning,” Mikel told Sky Sports after the game. “My goal is just a bonus, but I’m pretty happy – it’s about time!”
Years after being converted into a defensive midfielder by Chelsea trainer Jose Mourinho, it might not be too early to declare that Mikel is now enjoying a new lease of life in his career under the returnee manager.
After early fears of being relegated to the Blues bench with the arrival of new players into the squad and the return of Michael Essien, Mikel looks to be showing a new dimension to his game, something that has been explored effectively in the national team under coach Stephen Keshi where he has blossomed into a fine creative player.
“Good for [Mikel], good for us,” said Mourinho about the goal. “It’s good for his confidence. He played well, giving balance to the team.”
Derided for many years by many Chelsea fans and analysts for his sideways passes, Mikel is an entirely different player in a Nigeria jersey where he has been the fulcrum of the attack and leader up front.
After playing such an influential role in the Super Eagles’ march to win the Africa Cup of Nations in February, he gained critical praise for his performance at the Confederations Cup in Brazil where he scored a memorable goal against Uruguay.
Recently, he was named man of the match in Nigeria’s 2-0 victory over Malawi in Calabar as the Super Eagles secured late passage into the final 2014 World Cup play-off round.
Such has been his influence on the national team that one wonders why he has not been able to transfer that form to his club.
His future at Chelsea came under question during the summer transfer window as many Nigerians hoped he would go to a club where his attacking prowess could be better utilised, perhaps it was a good decision for him to stay behind and fight for his place in the Blues squad.
By means of the confidence gotten from this goal, the 26-year-old could be heading into the best year of his career in England.
Among some quarters, there’s a growing call for him to be named the African footballer of the year. There are still three months to go before the end of the year and he will need to prove himself worthy of the title.