The Stoke man has had a fine start to his England return, proving he still has the tools to be an asset for the Nigeria national team
It is safe to say that fans and observers of the Nigeria national team go into October’s friendly double-header – 2020’s first international break – with more questions than answers.
Despite the absence of any football at all since last November, the Super Eagles somehow managed to rise in the Fifa Rankings. That can be chalked up to an esoteric system and shrugged off as a welcome slice of good fortune, but it has only heightened the public’s level of anticipation of a side that has been inactive for close to a year.
What do we remember of that side then?
Well, they had got off to the perfect start in 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying with wins over Benin and Lesotho, and had earned creditable friendly draws (albeit in quite contrasting circumstances) against Ukraine and Brazil. There had also been a sense of proper evolution, both in terms of personnel and speed, with the additions of Semi Ajayi, Joe Aribo and Victor Osimhen amongst others.
However, Gernot Rohr’s decision to, in responding to the injury-enforced withdrawal of Wilfred Ndidi, recall Tyronne Ebuehi spoke to a lingering concern. Make no mistake: it is the culmination of a great redemption arc for Ebuehi, who is finding his feet again following a harrowing two-year ordeal at Benfica.
Still though, it was telling that the German coach did not opt for a direct replacement. There aren’t many available to him who are able to stamp their authority on a game and anchor the midfield with class.
Which brings the discussion right around to…John Mikel Obi.
Before you reach for the calendar, let’s establish two important points.
First of all, if there’s one thing that is obvious with Rohr is that there are certain individuals for whom he is more than willing to bend over backwards. Despite a ‘strict policy’ against playing outside Europe (one that has even taken in Turkey), he made an allowance for Mikel while he was in China with Tianjin TEDA in 2017 and 2018.
Captain’s privilege, perhaps, but that has stretched as far as allowing him dictate his starting role (he insisted on playing in a more advanced position than he had previously), and even which games he would like to play (he missed all of Afcon 2019 qualifying with Rohr’s express permission).
The other thing to take into account hinges a little on sentimentality: Mikel did not get the international send-off he deserved.
It is a popular refrain with Nigeria internationals, unfortunately. They never quite pick the right moment to exit the scene, and invariably overstay their welcome.
The former Chelsea man seemed to have it all figured out, and the 2019 Afcon appeared to be perfect culmination of a 14-year national team run.
However, his decision to move to England in January of that year, ostensibly with a view to getting higher quality minutes and fitness under his belt, backfired spectacularly when, following a gruelling half-season with Middlesbrough, he turned up to Egypt completely shot physically and could only feature in two of Nigeria’s seven matches.
While he has expressed no regret whatsoever since, there will be a part of him that resents the fact his exit did not go quite as he had planned it.
Having missed all of qualifying, he returned a side no longer tailor-made for him and in thrall to his influence, and was unable to show his best qualities back in the country where he played his first Afcon back in 2006. It would appeal to him to be able to set the record straight.
Why, though, is Mikel a talking point once again?
Well, this summer he returned to the shores of England with Championship side Stoke.
Michael O’Neill’s side have made a far from impressive start to their league campaign, but this past weekend the Potters picked up their first win (and first goal) of the campaign in a 1-0 triumph against Preston North End.
At the heart of it all was Mikel, who posted the game’s highest passing accuracy, created the joint-most big chances and gave up possession fewer times than any other player to complete the 90’.
Most impressive was his neat play between the lines leading up to his assist for Lee Gregory’s winner, a teasing ball across the six-yard box for the 32-year-old striker to turn home at the far post. Clearly, this old horse can still hold his own in the most physical, brutal division of all.
Whether that should translate to a national team recall, or whether he would even be open to it, remains to be seen. However, as a sales pitch, a chance to do his curtain call properly would no doubt hold some attraction for Mikel.
He is, after all, a showman still.