Mikel has a history of beating the odds every time but...

Africa Focus By: Jide Alaka | 29/10/2016

MIkel John Obi in Chelsea training watched by Antonio Conte

The major talking point [at least for Nigerian fans] after the 2-1 defeat suffered by Chelsea against West Ham in the EFL Cup last Wednesday was the non-appearance of Super Eagles captain, Mikel Obi.

And what made it more flummoxing for the fans was the fact that Antonio Conte rested seven players from the team that demolished Manchester United 4-1 and players like Ola Aina and Nathaniel Chalobah started.

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Before that encounter, Mikel revealed in an interview, “I hope I will get some playing time against West Ham [in the EFL Cup], but it is down to the manager.” Well, he did not ‘get some playing time’ neither did he make the substitutes’ bench.

Already rumours swirling around from Stamford Bridge to Nigeria at the moment are that Conte has told the Nigerian midfielder to seek greener pastures come January. That in itself is not the first time Mikel has been cast off and discarded only to rise like a phoenix and surprise the naysayers.

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What should a player like Mikel do? After spending 11 years on the Bridge and winning 11 titles, should he just throw in the towel or pray that Conte fails and Guus Hiddink resume his caretaker role? Many Chelsea fans would say no to Conte failing but some would love that the Nigerian is given a chance to compete against the likes of N’Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic, Chalobah and Cesc Fabregas for the two available slots in his new 3-4-3 formation.

After ‘”being told” by Conte to go represent Nigeria at the Rio 2016 Olympics, where he led Nigeria to the bronze medal, Mikel has found it tough getting back into the Chelsea team. And just before the start of the season, after Kante had been acquired, Conte said, “If you want to win, a team needs this type of player – Kante, Matic, and Mikel – that work hard for the team.”

So what is the stopping a ‘hard-working’ Mikel from getting minutes at Chelsea so far this season?

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There are three glaring factors:

1.    He does not have an engine like Kante or Matic, even though comparing Mikel’s engine to Kante’s would be a disservice.

2.    He does not play enough forward passes, and

3.    He went to the Olympics and did not have a proper pre-season, which for Conte – a sticker for fitness, is a must.

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So should he persevere and hope Conte has a change of mind, or should he start planning his exit from London, even though he is married to Roman Abramovich’s family and is quite settled in London?

He has also voiced the fact that Chelsea, especially under Conte’s new management want to move on from the past. “When you have been at a club for a long time, these things happen where a club wants to move forward.

“I always respect the football club’s decision. The club is more important than me,” he added.

Mikel enjoying training with Willian, Oscar

That statement could be construed in a manner that says Mikel is ready to move, even though his national manager, Gernot Rohr was in London this week and met with Conte, ostensibly to ask why his captain was not getting minutes on the pitch despite being fit.

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“I just have to be professional, work as hard as I can to try and get into the team. I work twice as hard every day and it’s because I appreciate this club.” But can Mikel work harder than he is doing at present?

The Super Eagles needs match fitness to continue to justify his inclusion and leadership of the national team and the best advice would be that if he has not played anywhere near 270 minutes [three matches] for Chelsea by the end of the year, he should seek a loan move to another London side to maintain his sharpness.

But for good reason, it has to be said that Mikel is not the only senior Chelsea player that is feeling the heat. Veterans like John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Cesc Fabregas have their squad positions under immense threat at the moment as Conte continues to carve up the old regime.

“I have been here a long time, have a lot of trophies and memories that will never go away. If I don’t get back in the side, I will respect it.” Now that is the wisdom that comes with being a professional footballer for over 12 years!