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John Obi Mikel still has something to offer English football after two-year absence

7:05 AM MYT 25/01/2019
John Obi Mikel
The Super Eagles captain has made a return to England, and his wealth of experience could well make the difference for new club Middlesbrough

COMMENT   By Solace Chukwu    
 

So, two years. That's how long John Obi Mikel's China adventure lasted. Thursday saw him return to English shores, completing a short-term move to Championship side Middlesbrough.

For so long associated with London giants Chelsea, it will take a bit of getting used to, seeing Mikel in the red of Boro. It will be even stranger seeing him wear the no. 2 shirt, sashaying across the middle of the park, receiving on the turn, looking up and sweeping the ball out to the flank in one fluid motion.

Reports suggest it was quite a coup for Tony Pulis's side, who apparently saw off competition from Italy and Germany to land their man. If so, it is doubly impressive that the former Stoke City boss managed to convince him, not only to make the Riverside Stadium his new abode, but also that he has it in him still to compete in such a frantic division.

The Super Eagles captain, 31 going on 32, has never based his game on physicality, although he is not unimpressive as a specimen. His frame and upper body strength proved invaluable for years with Chelsea, but Mikel was always an undeniably technical footballer, a subtle promoter rather than a barnstormer.

Quite how that translates, not only to a 24-team Championship, but within a typically bustling, belligerent Pulis side, remains to be seen.

It certainly is not an easy sell; Mikel played under a number of managers, all with wildly varying approaches to the game, but none of them quite espoused anything resembling Pulis's militaristic style.

That really is the rub of it.

While his professionalism is one of his finer understated qualities, the question does arise: how well can he hold up?

It must be clear to the coaching staff at Boro that it will be a big ask for him to be at his freshest, let alone his best, playing every matchday.

This means then that Mikel is considered worth the occasional exemption. So what does the club, presently sat in fifth place, get out of it? 

Well, a wealth of experience, for one thing, allied to a skillset that is somewhat lacking in the squad.

Muhamed Besic and Adam Clayton has been the preferred pairing in the middle of the park, but neither has stood out in terms of use of the ball. Unsurprisingly, with such a workmanlike midfield, Middlesbrough have scored fewer goals than any team above the bottom five in the Championship. They could do with some wily prompting.

What Mikel gets out of it is a higher competitive level than China, as well as, crucially, proximity to his family.

That latter consideration does offset the underwhelm factor of it all: this is, after all, a player who has played at the very highest levels of the game.

However, while it is without a doubt a smaller stage than he was provided at Chelsea, the Championship has, by Uefa's Club Licensing Benchmark Report of 2017, the third highest attendance figures in Europe. It is a smaller platform, but not by a whole lot.

In any case, there remains little more for the 31-year-old to prove in football.

If Boro stay the course in their promotion bid, it would be a feather in an already well decorated cap. If not, he gets vital minutes in a bid to prove his match fitness and work his way back into the international fold with Nigeria's Super Eagles.

It has been seven months since the national team captain last made himself available for selection, and feelers seem to suggest he is determined to go out on a high at the Africa Cup of Nations in June.

However, much his absence has polarized opinion, it is undeniable that his presence can elevate the collective, but only on his terms, and only if he felt he could contribute meaningfully.

First thought, he will have to prove that last bit...to himself, as much as to anyone else.