The Nigeria midfielder was overlooked for the Blues’ defeat on Friday evening.
There’s been a renewed sense of optimism around John Obi Mikel in recent weeks and months following the midfielder’s heroics during the Rio Olympics.
On and off the pitch, the 29-year-old demonstrated the kind of leadership skills that help explain his standing in the eyes of Nigerians, winning over any lingering doubters with a series of influential showings in Brazil and helping the nation save face with some financial contributions to ease their fiscal woes.
He also guided the Super Eagles to a triumph in their first match of the ‘New Era’ under Gernot Rohr when Tanzania were dispatched 1-0.
Mikel is the veteran of the national side these days. He doesn’t match the profile of the other young bucks who are getting Nigeria excited again, but he’s been there, done that, and boasts of the kind of honours haul that the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi can currently only dream of.
He is as critical to the team as any of them…if not more so.
At Chelsea, too, there had been a sense, during the fading summer months, that the two-time Premier League winner was blossoming into his role as the team’s elder statesman alongside John Terry.
He was revived under Guus Hiddink, and while the transfer rumours linking him with the exit door lingered again this summer, they seemed much less intense than they had been in the past.
His newly formed Twitter account also opened up Mikel the family man to a whole new legion of fans, and his early steps on social media have allowed his personality and passion to endear him to supporters like never before.
However, the prognosis for Mikel’s future was brought crashing down to earth on Friday evening when he was overlooked—entirely—from Chelsea’s matchday squad for their Premier League bout at home against rivals Liverpool.
While compatriot Victor Moses—a man reborn under new coach Antonio Conte—made his 50th appearance for the Pensioners when he came on from the bench as a late substitute, but Mikel was denied his 250th outing when he was snubbed completely, not even being given a look-in on the bench.
Conte opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation against the Reds, with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic as the midfield two behind an attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian.
“Mikel’s road back into the Chelsea team could be a long one,” said Goal’s Chelsea correspondent Nizaar Kinsella. “He will have to battle with new signing Kante who is one of the first names on Antonio Conte’s team sheet.”
Cesc Fabregas, the main victim of the arrival of Premier League-winner Kante, was introduced in the place of Matic in the 83rd minute, while Marcos Alonso, a new summer signing from Fiorentina, was also included on the bench.
Alonso is a versatile option for the Blues, able of playing on the left side of defence or midfield, as well as in the centre. While he’s unlikely to be a starter under the Italian coach, he provides options—more than Mikel—from the bench.
“The likes of Fabregas and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are also struggling to get game time so far,” added Kinsella, “but they could come into contention in the EFL Cup clash with Leicester City.
“Unfortunately for Mikel, central midfield is the most competitive position in the squad.”
Elsewhere, while David Luiz was included as a centre-back against Liverpool in John Terry’s absence, the Brazil international’s failings in the heart of the backline, along with the anticipated return of both the club captain and injured Kurt Zouma, suggest that his Stamford Bridge future could yet be in the midfield rather than in the defence.
“Mikel hasn’t given up on winning back his place at Chelsea,” continued Kinsella, “but he has acknowledged that it might take him a while as he gets used to Conte’s tactics after missing important training sessions to be with his national team,”
Any doubt that the summer arrivals of Alonso, Kante and David Luiz threatened Mikel’s place at Chelsea was realised on Friday evening, as the Nigerian was snubbed completely.
Of course, there will be injuries and suspensions as the months unfold, and Mikel will surely get his chance, although if ever there was a way to bring the nation’s hero back to earth following his exploits during August…this was it!