No Nigerian player has had as much controversy in his playing roles as Mikel Obi. The former Plateau United player started out as an attacking midfielder before Jose Mourinho converted him to a defensive midfielder at Chelsea with the hope of replicating Claude Makelele in the position.
It was not an easy role for the then 19-year-old who moved to the Stamford Bridge from Lyn Oslo after a transfer tussle with Manchester United.
He had been one of the brightest stars at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005, second only to Lionel Messi of Argentina and rated well above Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas. He was naturally fitted for the attacking midfield role.
But Mourinho put Mikel to use as much as he could in the midfield. Back then, Chelsea’s main asset in the game was its midfield. They had the likes of Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Mikel, who all used to play together in the centre of the pitch. Today, Chelsea’s strength is their unmatchable attack that accommodates the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata. With this kind of attack-minded play, there is not as much room for a normal midfielder to express himself in the game. This has meant he has been restricted in a Chelsea shirt in recent times.
The world saw a bit of the old Mikel at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, where he pushed forward in his attacking midfield role for Nigeria to score his fourth international goal against Uruguay.
Since Mourinho’s departure from Chelsea in 2007, Mikel’s position in the team had been secured, but the return of the Portuguese to Stamford Bridge after sojourns at Inter Milan and Real Madrid meant a new philosophy for the London club.
Mourinho has not come out to say Mikel is surplus to requirement but his body language is loud enough to inform anyone that his new game plan with Chelsea has little need for a relatively passive role in the squad.
Apparently some clubs have seen how unimportant the Nigerian will be to Mourinho in his second coming hence the numerous transfer links to Monaco, Galatasaray, Trabzonspor and recently Napoli.
Mikel reportedly said in June that he was ready to move to Galatasaray but he later denied making such statement.
New Napoli manager, Rafa Benitez, who only recently led Chelsea to glory in the UEFA Europa League, wants the player in Italy as he bids to strengthen his squad. But Mikel has been adamant, insisting he has a future with the London club.
“He should just take the opportunity and go to Napoli. What else does he want? He has won everything there is in club football except Club World Cup and the FIFA World Cup,” former Super Eagles captain and a former coach of the Golden Eaglets, Henry Nwosu, said.
“Mikel is one of the pillars of the Super Eagles so he cannot afford to be on the bench at Chelsea. That will not convince coach Stephen Keshi about his quality. It will not sound fine to have one of Nigeria’s finest regularly warming the bench at Chelsea.
“I can understand if he rejects offers from Turkish clubs, but Napoli is a big club managed by a top coach. The Italian league is among the best in the world, so what is his confusion all about? If he insists on staying at Chelsea, Mourinho may likely never include him in the first team again.”
Mikel is one of the very few left in the squad that have lifted the major trophies with Chelsea since 2006 and at one time had more appearances than Salomon Kalou, Deco or even Didier Drogba.
“Mikel needs a new challenge away from Chelsea. In my opinion, he is one of the best players in the world, but to be at his best, he must be in a team where he is free to express himself,” former Nigeria midfielder Etim Esin said.
“It is hard for a player to say he is moving on after spending over seven years at a club, especially in London. Moving to a new place is a different challenge on its own, but if he wants his career to remain on the high end, he should move to Napoli and allow Benitez to work on him. Perhaps he’s thinking he can win more laurels under Mourinho, but the question is: will Mourinho feature him in the crucial games?”
Another former Nigeria international, Taribo West, however, disagreed with those calling for Mikel’s move away from Chelsea. He wants the player to fight for his place just like every other player in the club.
Taribo said, “Mourinho is a professional who knows exactly what he wants. If Mikel proves himself to be worthy of a role, he will get it. He has to remain at Chelsea and fight for his place if he must be relevant even in the Super Eagles.
“If he leaves, someone will still have to play that role, so why not him.
“As a vital member of the Super Eagles, there is the need for him to play at a top club. All the clubs linked to him are smaller than Chelsea. If he must move, it must be to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United or AC Milan.”
Chelsea have played two games in the new Premier League season and Mikel has yet to play any role in the campaign. With the transfer window expected to close on September 2, it remains to be seen if Mikel will eventually go to the highest bidder.