Toure and Mikel key to Nigeria/Cote D’Ivoire clash

The midfield battle between the Yaya and Mikel is at the heart of a matrix of individual contests across the pitch that will decide which West African nation progresses
By Ed Dove

John Obi Mikel v Yaya Toure

22nd April 1987 (25) DOB (AGE)
13th May 1983 (29)
Nigeria NATION Cote d'Ivoire
Chelsea CLUB
Manchester City

Two continental heavyweights, both alike in dignity, in fair Rustenburg, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where great ambitions dare the darkest minds to dream. In the driving cores of these two foes, two dominant midfielders to coax and cajole, both with the passion, and the heart to know, that one false step could mean passage home.

As the Group stages were settled and the quarter finals were confirmed, one contest, above all others, stood out as the tie-to-watch. The footballing cycles of Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire have rarely flowed and fluctuated in sync in recent years; as the Elephants have enjoyed their rise in stature, on the back of their ‘Golden Generation’, so the Super Eagles have endured a fallow period in their history-the armour and the aura have been stripped away, and a lean few years have undermined the bravado and continental reputation of the West African giants.

Perhaps this Afcon signifies the swinging pendulum of football’s fortunes returning in the other direction. Despite entering the competition as favourites, the Ivory Coast haven’t been overwhelmingly impressive in progressing from their group. Sure, they were the first team to qualify for the knock-out stages, and the last to preserve a 100% record, but it took a late, late Gervinho winner to best unfancied Togo, and two late goals gave a glossy finish to a fairly mundane victory over Tunisia.

Also, there are the constant questions about their nerve, their confidence and belief at the business end of the tournament. Twice they have flopped in the World Cup, and the last decade has seen them ease their way to the latter stages of the Afcon, before choking when the going got tough; who can forget Algeria’s extra time winner, Egypt’s masterclass, or Zambia’s penalty shootout victories – all of which resulted in Ivorians shivering glibly, every ounce of self-belief simply evaporating?

Will the traditional collapse come at the hands of the Super Eagles this time around? Stephen Keshi certainly hopes so, and quietly, confidently, the Big Boss is overseeing a change in fortune for the Sleeping Giants of Nigeria.

Gently, Keshi is instigating a revival of sorts. Much-maligned before the tournament for having ignored or ostracised many of the squad’s stars, he is carefully blending a potentially exciting mix of big names, young players, and domestic-based talents. What the group need is a big win, the confidence has begun to flow after having qualified unbeaten ahead of holders Zambia, and perhaps the quarter final against Cote d’Ivoire could take the side to the next level.

Victory and progression will only be possible if the Super Eagles win the individual battles they face across the pitch and throughout the encounter. Chief among these contests is perhaps in the heart of the terrain, where two Premier League midfielders will go toe-to-toe in a very familiar face-up.

I can’t help imagine sometimes that John Obi Mikel looks at Yaya Toure and imagines the player he could have been. Famously prodigal as an attack-minded midfielder at youth level, Mikel was heralded in some quarters as the new Jay-Jay Okocha – many suggested that one day the youngster would be primed to carry the creative mantle for the Super Eagles. Conversely, during his time at Barcelona, the younger Toure brother was predominantly employed as a defensive player, supporting the more creative players in the midfield, and lending his impressive physique to protecting the backline.

Since these days, however, the pair have been reinvented, with variable success. Yaya Toure has been transformed by Roberto Mancini, and currently operates higher up the pitch, as a marauding central midfielder, linking the play, supporting the attack, and contributing with ferocious shooting and an admirable drive. Mikel, on the other hand, has had his progress stymied somewhat, and his career has taken a very different route. Indentified by Jose Mourinho as a defensive midfielder, a potential heir to Claude Makelele, the attacking side of Mikel’s play was wrapped and locked away, forgotten somewhere safe for a rainy day. Perhaps lacking the awareness and the guile to read the game ahead of the defence, and lacking the speed and energy to contribute regularly to Chelsea’s attacks, his game has meandered, as has his footballing identity.

This tournament has seen calls for him to step from the shackles and be both the heartbeat and the lifeblood of this Nigerian side, the midfield general that spurs his team on, and the youthful passmaster that fuels the frontmen and forges openings for his side. To overcome the Ivory Coast, and to nullify Yaya Toure, Mikel will need to flourish, demonstrating both sides of his game, and proving that he can dominate games in the same way as his opposite number.

Elsewhere, Gervinho has been the Elephants’ star player-his late winner against Togo crucial to getting their Afcon up and running. He may well fancy his chances down Nigeria’s right side, where options include Efe Ambrose, who was frequently exposed for his lack of pace against Burkina Faso, or, more likely, the youngster Kenneth Omeruo, of Chelsea.

Despite possessing all of the raw materials needed to be an accomplished, athletic defender, this is likely to be a test like no other for the rookie, and he will need to give the performance of his career to keep the Arsenal man silent.

The Ivory Coast aren’t the only side to possess a mesmerising talent on the left flank, indeed, would Nigeria even be here if it wasn’t for the frightening pace and bold running of Victor Moses? The Chelsea man set the spectacle alight against Ethiopia, terrifying the Walyas Antelopes’ defence in the process, as he singlehandedly thrust Nigeria through to the knock-out stages.

I have long identified this tournament as the potential breakthrough for Moses, the month when he announces his qualities on the continental sphere, and goes from being an exciting young talent to a bona fide star in the African context. Against Ethiopia, Moses demonstrated exactly why I, and so many others, have such faith in his ability to shine, a similarly influential performance against Cote D’Ivoire may well hurl him into the footballing stratosphere.

The shifting cycles of West Africa’s heavyweights may well settle at the twinkled toes of Nigeria’s young Super Eagle.

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