HIDDINK’S JOKER: MIKEL OBI’S REMARKABLE RISE TO PROMINENCE

The Nigerian has always enjoyed himself when Guus Hiddink’s
spent time as Chelsea’s interim boss, with his latest ride probably
the best yet

This is really happening.
The manacles are coming off.
Six months is a pretty long time in footballing terms but the words
‘amazing’, ‘awesome’ and all their synonymous cousins have proven
quite apt to describe the rise and rise of John Mikel Obi at Chelsea
FC over the last couple of weeks, spanning the period between Jose
Mourinho’s second exit from Stamford Bridge and now.
There had been several reports in the tabloids that the London-based
club were eager to get Mikel off its books, and that they might even
consider slashing his asking price in a bid to generate interest, only
for Mikel to indulge sleights of body and mind to conjure up an escape
from the fetters of being frozen out of the club he joined in the wake
of a fierce bidding war with Manchester United so many years ago. So
far, he appears to have emerged tops.
“He has a very good eye, a very good nose, and a very good sense of
where to recover; the ideal player to bring balance.”
That was current Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink, lavishing praise on Mikel
after the midfielder featured in all opening three games of his
(Hiddink’s) latest interim tenure at the club’s helm, a total of 225
minutes.
“If the team is not willing to defend well, or hasn’t got the right
balance,” Hiddink continued, “then you’ll concede a lot of goals. I
think [Mikel] can be one of the key figures in bringing back that
balance.
“On this podium very talented players can explore their qualities. He
reads the game very well, he knows where the strength of the opponent
is and knows how to combat that. He has very good sense, he doesn’t do
it in a brutal way, he’s very elegant. Someone who can defend so
smoothly is very beautiful.”

Guus-Hiddink-John-Obi-Mikel
A new spring in the step of John Mikel Obi since the second arrival of Dutchman Guus Hiddink
John-Obi-Mikel
Father figure | John Obi Mikel has never lost under Guus Hiddink in 26 matches
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Mikel during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.

As Chelsea continue to thrum along in low gear at the middle of the
Premier League table — even thumping embattled Newcastle 5-1 over the
weekend — it would soon become necessary for fans of the Pensioners
to twiddle the knobs, clear the snow from the screen, and take a long,
hard and proud look at what is no longer proving an improbable run of
form but an entirely genuine, brilliantly executed push for a top four
finish.
At some point in any footballer’s career, there comes some sort of
turning point: a challenge to either step up and be counted or slither
away deep down into an abyss. Dutchman Hiddink’s appointments have
turned out to be experiences of such nature for the Nigerian at
Chelsea, served either as a catalyst or a cautery; a good test of
mental toughness, bringing on board those intangible qualities of
calmness and certitude in the heart of midfield that cannot be done
away with, even in today’s stat-obsessed world.
In five appearances under Mourinho earlier this season, Mikel played
only 177 minutes — including coming on for Cesc Fabregas in the 92nd
minute against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge — and starting only twice,
away to Everton in September 2015 when he provided the assist for
Chelsea’s consolation (he was taken off just around the hour-mark with
his team chasing the game 2-1) and, a month later, at home against
Liverpool. Then again, Mikel was subbed with the scores tied at 1-1 on
the latter occasion. Instead, the mercurial Portuguese preferred a
midfield pivot of Nemanja Matic and Fabregas — a duo he deployed to
stunning effect last term — which looked to have created a grave
imbalance in his team’s set-up this season, resulting in a string of
negative results.

In 26 games across his two spells in charge of Chelsea, Hiddink is yet
to lose a contest in which Mikel has featured. Clearly an integral cog
in how his team lines up for every game, Hiddink thought it wise to
leave Mikel out of the game against Newcastle, apparently in
anticipation of the Champions League duel with Paris Saint-Germain on
Tuesday. The very thought would have been almost unimaginable under
Mourinho, of course, and just as weird to most of the other managers
who have held sway over the affairs of the West London outfit in the
last couple of years.

John-Obi-Mikel-and-John-Terry-on-the-bench
Revival| Until Guus Hiddink’s arrival, John Mikel Obi was virtually part of the Chelsea furniture
03_30120921_739bd1_2468159a
Under Jose Mourinho, John Mikel Obi appeared to have spent more time watching football matches than actually playing in them

Not that Hiddink has changed anything significantly about Mikel’s
game, really; we still see him pass the ball back to the goalkeeper if
he feels all channels going forward are blocked, continues to execute
passes within no more than five-metre ranges, and we aren’t exactly
going to see him in a Claude Makelele- or Michael Essien-eque
box-to-box mode covering over nine kilometres during a match anytime
soon, but one thing that could certainly be said and, indeed,
attributed to Mikel’s revival — from being a player who spent more
time watching games from the bench than actually playing in them to
becoming a key fixture in the team’s line-up in recent times — is
Hiddink’s confidence and faith in him.
“Since the new manager came in we have been working really hard and as
I said before, the atmosphere has changed a bit,” said Mikel himself
after Chelsea’s victory over Crystal Palace last month.
What remains to be seen is how long this [re-]union between Hiddink
and Mikel will withstand the odds and still uphold the enviable 26-0
record. If it’s anything to go by, I wouldn’t advise anybody to bet
against a doubling of those figures.
And, to that, may the entire congregation of Blues say a big A-M-E-N!

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