Opportunity missed for Mikel in Chelsea cup final

Nemanja Matic’s suspension means that the Nigerian could have taken a key role for Jose Mourinho’s side in their upcoming League Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur

By Ed Dove

Ashley Barnes’s high foot on Nemanja Matic may well have reverberations across London when the first silverware of the season is dished out following the League Cup final on Sunday.

Initially, it looked like the Burnley man’s over-the-top foot had caused serious injury to the Serbian. Matic fell to the ground in a heap, clutching his leg and screaming into the turf.

A moment later he was back on his feet, and ran at Barnes, shoving his aggressor to the ground with a hefty push. Referee Martin Atkinson had little choice but to send the Serb for an early bath.

Barnes licked his wounds and got back to his business of being a nuisance, while Jose Mourinho fumed on the touchline.

Chelsea, the league leaders, could only manage a 1-1 draw against Burnley—almost everyone’s favourite for relegation when the season began. Mourinho would go on to infer, predictably, that the official’s decision to dismiss Matic for his retaliation was instrumental in his side's dropping points, and promptly appeared on British television on Sunday morning to vent his frustrations.

The Pensioners will appeal Matic’s three-match ban but the FA, resilient to Mourinho’s menace, are unlikely to relent. Imagine how many wrong messages that would send out!

While few—even Mourinho himself—can deny that Matic’s influence has waned in recent weeks, the towering midfielder remains one of Chelsea’s most important men and a key cog in their previously-relentless machine.

He brings presence to the heart of the park, and while his astute positioning and intelligent defensive play take the pressure of the Blues’ backline, he must also be commended for his smart use of the ball.

So far this season, Matic has averaged 3.8 tackles-per-game (the joint-second best in the division), registered an average of 2.2 interceptions-per-game and has a pass-success rate of 87.1 percent.

He will be sorely missed against Tottenham Hotspur in this weekend’s League Cup final.

Matic Dismissed | Joy for Spurs

When one door closes, another typically opens, but unfortunately, in this case, it won't be John Obi Mikel who profits from Matic's misfortune.

Chelsea confirmed on February 20, via their official Twitter, that the Nigerian still looks like being out of action for a further two weeks due to injury. A proposed return date of March 6 means he will miss the Wembley final on March 1.

It is a great shame that a potentially superb opportunity for Mikel to assert himself in Mourinho's plans will pass him by.

Nigeria fans are well aware of the impact Matic’s arrival at Stamford Bridge has had on Mikel’s career. Regrettably, the Super Eagles midfielder has largely been relegated to the role of a bench-warmer in West London and has found himself on the periphery of Mourinho’s side.

While Matic has started 25 games in the EPL this season and seven in the Champions League, Mikel has started just four Premier League fixtures and a further one in Europe.

However, the West African is likely to be one of the major benefactors from Matic’s enforced spell on the sidelines.

It’s unlikely that Mourinho would have any qualms about shoehorning the Super Eagle into his starting XI for the final against Spurs. Mikel is, after all, one of his trusted lieutenants, and the two men have shared some great successes over the years.

Mikel also has bags of experience of elite contests—more so than Matic—having played in the semi-finals and finals of both the Champions League and the African Nations Cup.

Also, statistically, Mikel’s passing success rate in the EPL is even better than the Serbian’s this season. Admittedly, he’s had fewer occasions to miss-place them, but Mikel’s 90.2 percent pass conversion rate (the fifth-best in the Prem) ought not be sniffed at.

Will Mikel be returning to action on the Wembley turf?

However, while Mikel will surely be lamenting having missed such a valuable, high-profile opportunity to serve his side, I argue that Spurs are a team who are well-equipped to exploit the Mikel-for-Matic switch.

Under Mauricio Pochettino, the Lilywhites are perfecting a high-intensity approach to matches. It’s paying off—they have already beaten both Chelsea and Arsenal so far this season—and have cultivated a very un-Tottenham-like reputation for being relentless.

Central to Pochettino’s approach to games is the dynamic midfield pairing of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason. The duo—both academy products—are good all-rounders and their superb stamina underpins Spurs’s intensity.

They would give the mobile Matic a taxing 90 minutes—as demonstrated (with the help of Moussa Dembele) in the 5-3 New Year’s Day miracle—but one would have feared for Mikel had he be pitted against them.

Even on a good day, the Nigerian star isn’t the most sprightly nor energetic of players, and the tenacity and energy of Bentaleb and Mason may have got the better of him.

Against those two, Mikel would not have been given that extra second to reposition his bulk behind the ball ahead of a pass; he would not have been allowed to shuffle slightly as he attempts to find Fabregas. Had he played, the Super Eagle would have been set for a tough old afternoon on the Wembley turf.

In principle, it is a sad reality that Mikel won't be present for such a showpiece occasion for the national side. As he has demonstrated before, he rises to the big occasion and it would have been just reward for his loyal service.

However, perhaps his injury is a blessing in disguise. A cup final against this high-octane Spurs side and the tigerish enthusiasm of Mason and Bentaleb may have been too much for a coming-back-to-fitness Mikel and, ultimately, would not have been the finest context for Nigeria’s comeback king to shine.

Over to you, Ramires...

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