Going into the new season after having secured the services of superstar Eden Hazard and other young prodigious talents, Chelsea looked like the team to beat for the upcoming season. However, a loss in form in the league and their premature exit from the champion’s league followed. This led to sacking of Club Legend and fan favourite Robert Di Matteo.
It seemed to be yet another bleak season for fans of Chelsea Football club. Only this time, their disappointment was further exacerbated with the hiring of Rafa Benitez as interim manager. While initial results seemed promising. However, the loss to Manchester City followed by shaky performances in the Europa league did little to quell the anxiety and anger among fans of the club.
Thankfully, Benitez did get one thing right. That was the increased responsibility he has given to Chelsea’s Nigerian duo of Jon Obi Mikel and Victor Moses.
For many fans, Jon Obi Mikel has been a familiar face and a mainstay in the Chelsea team since he joined as an 18 year old in 2005. Now 25, the Nigerian has grown leaps and bounds. Most recently, he showcased his talent as a holding midfielder in Nigeria’s win at the Africa Cup of Nations 2013.
In the tournament, his tenacity in defence and solid distribution of the ball provided the perfect springboard for his team mates to attack. He was the main reason why Nigeria was able to demolish teams like Ivory Coast, Mali and finalist Burkina Faso, proving why he is one of the best African midfielders at the moment.
While Mikel was gone, his midfield presence in the Chelsea midfield was sorely missed. Despite the Ramires – Mikel midfield combination having drawn criticism for being uncreative, one thing never lacking between the two was their defensive solidarity and sheer power. Ramires would embark on his lung bursting runs confident that Mikel would be there to screen the defence. In certain cases, Mikel’s underrated pin point passing was the catalyst of promising attacking moves.
That defensive solidity was evident in the match against Manchester City, where Mikel made his long awaited return to the club’s midfield. In the match, he made numerous interceptions and tackles while displaying his expansive range of passing. Although he was partly responsible for Yaya Toure’s goal, his overall performance reminded Chelsea fans why he has been a constant feature in the side despite the managerial merry go round that has been going on in recent years.
On the attacking side, Chelsea’s other Nigerian star Victor Moses has drawn plaudits from many for his inspired performances on the right wing.
Originally bought from Wigan for a mere 9 million pounds, Moses was a relatively quiet arrival compared to the likes of Oscar and Hazard. Many had even wondered whether he could fit into the team. While Robert Di Matteo fancied Moses mostly as an impact substitute, it was Rafa Benitez who saw potential in Moses and trusted him with numerous starts.
In the subsequent games, Moses’s trickery, pace and attacking strengths repaid Benitez’s faith in him. The Nigerian even managed to displace Brazil wonder kid Oscar from the starting line-up. His success is mainly due to his play style, being the only out and out winger in the squad. What he brings in attacking width and effectiveness makes him so indispensable for Benitez.
It is no surprise how disappointing it must have been for Benitez to lose Moses and Mikel to the AFCON. This loss was even more keenly felt when Benitez failed to find adequate replacements for them from his reserve bench.
One might remember the David Luiz experiment, where the Benitez finally gave the Brazilian a shot at playing as a midfielder. However, after several good displays, his influenced waned and Chelsea suffered as a result. In other areas, bringing in Oscar back into the team with Mata and Hazard gave greater attacking creativity, but failed in bringing the best out of Torres or Demba Ba.
It is clear to many that Chelsea’s Nigerian duo has been sorely missed. While Oscar and Hazard are slowly find their feet in the premier league, it would fall on Moses (who has already had premier league experience at Wigan) to propel the side’s attacking moves. For Mikel, his indispensable defensive influence in the middle of the field can bring stability back to the Chelsea backline.
Their influence is the key to improving this woefully inconsistent Chelsea team in a state of transition. They can become the backbone of the club with the evergreen Juan Mata.
While winning the league is nearly impossible for Chelsea, a top 4 finish is not impossible for them. However with Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton all vying for the coveted Champions league spot, they definitely face a tough battle on their hands.
Benitez can only hope that the return of his Nigerian stars will galvanize the salvaging of this season.