WORDS WITH: JOHN MIKEL OBI
On the surface, John Mikel Obi has played 229 Chelsea games, scoring just twice, more than five years ago, and has contributed direct assists only sparsely in that time. He is not a dead ball specialist and nor does he possess the positional versatility of others.
And yet here is a man clearly doing something right.
Ever since Jose Mourinho handed the Nigerian a debut in August 2006, every Chelsea manager, and including Roberto Di Matteo there have been seven (plus Ray Wilkins for one game prior to Guus Hiddink's tenure), has employed Mikel at the bottom of his midfield, where he retains possession as well as anybody, and regularly wins it back with a minimum of fuss.
This season the 24-year-old began as Andre Villas-Boas's preferred option, despite the kidnapping of his father. It was a difficult time at the start of an up-and-down campaign punctuated by injury over Christmas and the New Year.
'It was really difficult for me but I carried on with my football and started the season well,' comments the midfielder. 'I was playing games until just before Christmas against Spurs, and then came back and things weren't going well but I am happy to be playing again now.
'I come in every day and try to enjoy what I do, enjoy my work and have a smile on my face. If that's working it's good, football is a job I love doing and one I want to do full of happiness. Playing makes me feel like that and I'm pleased that the coach has confidence in me.'
Lately Mikel has drawn plaudits for his form, which over the past few weeks has been as one of the holders in a 4-2-3-1 shape rather than his traditional anchorman role in a 4-3-3.
'It's important playing in that deeper role, if there is one or two of you, that when you have the ball you have players full of confidence who want it off you,' he points out. 'It makes it easy to release the ball quickly, and it's something we are doing more now. It makes my job a lot easier. When we lose the ball I have to be the man to start the defence or make sure everything is in order and we are in shape. Everyone is doing their job well right now.
'I think the team is playing well, and if the team plays well as a whole it makes it easier for you. With luck as well, it has started to turn in our favour, so whatever we do seems to be working a bit better. We want to carry on like this and keep doing well. We have everyone fit and in good shape so we have to keep going.'
Tonight, that means sealing our place in the last four of the Champions League. Mikel has been there before of course, and is primed for a tough test against Benfica at Stamford Bridge this evening.
'The away goal last week could be important for us, it was very important we got that result out in Portugal because now we are in the driving seat but the job is not yet done,' he warns.
'For me it's only 40 per cent done, they will come here and give us a game, they won't sit back, so we have to keep playing and try to stop them doing the same. Hopefully that will be enough to give us the win we want to go through to the semi-finals.'
If selected, he is likely to have the task of monitoring Benfica's number 10 Pablo Aimar, who showed glimpses of his ability in Lisbon last week.
'Aimar is someone who likes to play behind the forwards, he plays in that hole and is a clever player so we need to pay him special attention, whether it is me or somebody else who sits a bit more,' he adds. 'We have been playing with two deeper recently so whoever of those two is staying deep will have to make sure he keeps Aimar quiet.'
With a gap of five points between ourselves and the Champions League spots in the Barclays Premier League, Mikel is aware that tonight's game may carry extra significance. It may yet be that our best chance of being in the competition next season is to win it in Munich on May 19. Typically confident, he believes we are capable of achieving both routes through.
'We still have the league form to get in there,' he stresses. 'Arsenal and Tottenham still have some difficult games, and we have to play Arsenal so who knows what will happen there.
'With our recent good form I still think we can get in, it is tight but we can only keep going. Nobody wants to be in the Europa League here, we all want to be in the top competition because we have Champions League players. We don't want to drop down, so we have to do everything possible to qualify.
'And listen, we can win the Champions League. We still have very good teams to beat though, starting with Benfica, but we can compete with anybody. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid are all great teams so it is looking difficult but we want to do it. First though, we can only focus on Benfica who we know will give us a difficult game.'
There are plenty of big assignments before the end of the season, and the outcome remains unclear. What will be guaranteed is that as long as he is in there, Mikel will be going about his job quietly and confidently. Just don't bet on him finding the net anytime soon.
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