At f**kin last Mikel

by Win Soon

2555, that’s the number of days since he last scored a goal. Every day, that number grows bigger, and that scares me. Because all it takes is just one goal to bring it all crashing down to zero.

A thumping header from Fernando Torres was parried away by David Stockdale during the 83th minute of the Fulham vs Chelsea London Derby. Chelsea was leading 1-0 courtesy of an Oscar goal, which gave much respite for a team who came into the match on the back of two losses. As the resulting corner came in, Chelsea fans could only hope for the elusive goal that would put the game to bed. Terry was first to the ball, heading it to the path of an oncoming player.

As the ball bounced tantalisingly, it was as if the whole of Stamford Bridge held their breath in anticipation. Contact came, and from a brilliant volley, the ball rustled into the back of the net. Chelsea was up 2-0. Cue the jubilant celebration amongst fans worldwide. The goal had brought Chelsea briefly to the top of the table. As the goalscorer emerged from the ground, fans looked to find out his identity. Who could it be? Surely that finish was one befitting of Hazard or Lampard. Just then, the faint number 12 shirt appeared.

Oh my f**king god, it’s MIKEL.

Watching on the television screen, my celebration for Mikel’s goal arguably matched that of our Champions League win, when Didier Drogba slotted in his last penalty in a Chelsea shirt to clinch the trophy. As Mikel ran towards the touch line, his face was the epitome of pure ecstasy. “IT’S MIKEL!” the commentator screamed as he jumped onto the loving arms of Frank Lampard. How ironic, the holder of the longest barren streak for an outfield player celebrating in the arms of the man who now holds the record of Chelsea’s all-time top scorer.

Even Roman Abramovich, a man whose stoic expression was the butt of match commentator’s jokes all game, was more than all smiles. As many might recall, the Russian Oligarch, known for his austere demeanor stood up from his seat, hands covering his mouth in sheer disbelief. In the seconds to follow, his shock only increased as he turned to his friend in his private box to confirm the sight before his eyes. One could only guess the words they exchanged. Finally, happiness followed with his elusive smile, the first that I have seen on TV since our Champions League triumph. Roman Abramovich’s reaction was only outmatched by that online, as many lay to rest the daunting statistic that plagued Mikel throughout his career. Finally after 185 games or seven years, Mikel has scored his first Premier League goal.

It is funny that many still believe that Mikel has never ever scored a goal for Chelsea, that has actually been a myth. In his first season at the club, Mikel scored two goals in the FA Cup but his drought has continued since then. For the Nigerian, it must have been a time of immense frustration. After all, Mikel played primarily as an attacking midfielder in his youth. In fact, he was more than just an attacking player, but the pride of Nigeria as the nation’s top footballing prospect. So skilled was he as an attacker that he emerged as the second best youth player (silver ball awardee) at the FIFA World Youth Championships, only behind Lionel Messi from Argentina. While Messi eventually hit storied heights at Barcelona, Mikel was seen by many to have languished at Chelsea.

In retrospect, one would always see Mikel dropping back as a center back whenever the team had corners. His only contribution to attack was the rare long shot that often came when Mikel happened to be close enough to the edge of the penalty box. Those, however, were often blasted high and wide. In fact, I like many, grew so used to seeing those shots miss their mark. They seemed a stark yet distinctive reminder of Mikel’s fate.

A large part of it came down to then manager Jose Mourinho’s decision to play him as a back up to Claude Makelele, the clubs chief defensive midfielder. Mikel, who was pushed away from his best position, was forced to adapt to Mourinho’s plans. Over the years, Mikel played a capable deputy to Makelele. When Mourinho left, fans gradually forgot about Mikel’s attacking prowress. The player they now saw was a slow lumbering beast, only capable of playing passes sideways and backwards. Yet somehow, he managed to get games. As if he was the best option the club had in defensive midfield. New arrivals like Romeu and the return of Michael Essien from injury, failed to change that.

At a glance, there is much to admire about Mikel and his commitment to defending. His strengths lie in his strength in possession and vision. This season however, a significant change can be seen in his play style. In the two games he has played, Mikel has played more forward passes and contributed more towards attack. This development has seen him display his underrated passing range and creativity.

Most crucially, it was as if the return of Mourinho, the manager who played a key role in his relegation to defence has lifted those shackles from the Nigerian. That showed against Fulham, where his presence in the box, once an anomaly leads to his goal.

Ultimately, seven years without a goal is a statistic that can be seen as both admirable and hilarious. Some look at it as a testament of his focus on his defensive duty, others see it as a number that proves that he was a bad investment. Nevertheless, 22th August 2013 will always be a day to be remembered for all Chelsea fans.

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