John Obi Mikel reaffirming his relevance at Middlesbrough

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The Nigerian appears to be winning over fans at the Riverside Stadium, and is playing a key role in Boro's promotion push

John Obi Mikel has consistently faced criticism that he never became the talented player that many had expected when he won the silver ball at the 2005 Fifa World Youth Championship in the Netherlands.

However, despite accusations of being overhyped, the 31-year old has shown his worth time and time again.

From a successful 11-year spell with Chelsea to a less fruitful two-season stint with TIanjin TEDA in the Chinese Super League, where injury and fitness issues limited his impact, Mikel is now reinventing himself in the Championship with Middlesbrough.

John Obi Mikel

Signed during the January transfer window on a short-term deal until the end of the current season, the 31-year-old is having a blast in the English second tier, and his performances will hopefully make the critics swallow their pride.

Having made his debut at West Bromwich Albion on February 2, 2019, playing for 75 minutes, Mikel has gone on to play every single Championship game, lasting the entire 90 minutes on each occasion.

In just six Championship games, he’s had a passing accuracy rate of 86%, has won 61.5% of his tackles, 49% of duels, and is yet to be booked.

It's a superb return for a player that hadn't seen competitive action since October 28, and he's blended in seamlessly in North Yorkshire.

Considering the reputations of the Championship and the CSL, one lauded for its intensity, the other criticised for a lack thereof, Mikel deserves immense credit for his successful transition.

Boro fans have subsequently developed an affinity for the Olympic bronze medallist, especially after his solid performance in the 1-0 win away to Blackburn Rovers which sent Tony Pulis’ men into the promotion playoff places. It also earned Mikel a place in the EFL Team of the Week .

Such is the love for Mikel that the Boro fans and have coined a song after him, which has created a buzz on social media.

"We've got Mikel, John Obi Mikel," reads the lyrics. "I just don't think you understand.

"The midfield man, the African Zidane.

"Oh , we've got John Obi Mikel."

It might be awkward comparing Mikel with the legendary Zidane, but it's testament to the fact that the fans alraeady love him, and appreciate his oft-underrated technical class!

With the Nigerian, Middlesbrough have a genuine shot at returning to the Premier League for the first time since the 2016-17 season.

Mikel’s return to prominence is particularly timely considering the Super Eagles' upcoming Africa Cup of Nations campaign, which may be the Nigeria's captain's international swansong.

His experience is vital for Gernot Rohr's side as, alongside Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo, he's the only player to have played in and won the continental showpiece.

"I haven't retired yet...the day I will, I will let everyone know," he told journalists in November, addressing his international future. "We have qualifed for the Africa Cup of Nations and we will see what happens with my fitness and motivation."

Mikel's presence in the national team can't be underestimated, as he brings calm and stabilility in the middle of the park.

Gernot Rohr and John Obi Mikel of Nigeria

His value was summed up by currrent Queen's Park Rangers boss Steve McClaren after his side were defeated 2-0 by a Mikel-inspired Boro.

"You always have that one player who gives you stability, control, never gives the ball away," he said.

"Every team needs a Mikel. He's certainly the kind of enforcer in there, defensively and he keeps the ball ticking."

Mikel is fit, back to his best and motivated to help Boro return to the big time. Nigeria fans will be hoping, too, that his Indian summer extends to the Afcon, and another tilt at Africa's grandest prize.