2012 Champion League final Interview with Chelsea John Mikel Obi
That several members of the Chelsea team likely to take to the pitch this evening have a Champions League Final past from four years ago has not gone unnoticed in the build-up, but in addition to the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Ashley Cole being able to use their so-near-yet-so-far experience of Moscow to spur them on against Bayern, there is another likely starter tonight for whom 2008 must not be repeated.
John Mikel Obi was in his second year at the club and played 39 games that season.A month before the Final against Manchester United he played the whole of a league win against the same opponents, yet it was never likely he would win selection by then manager Avram Grant for the big one, not once the venerable Claude Makelele proved his availability with a 45-minute outing the match before.
Grant favoured the know-how of the France international throughout the Champions League knockout stages and the midfield of Makelele, Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack he put out in the Luzhniki Stadium oozed experience.
‘As soon as we got to the Final I knew I wasn’t going to play because of Maka’s experience,’ agrees Mikel as thinks back to four years ago.
‘It was frustrating not playing but Maka was one of the best when he was playing in that position, I had so much respect for him.
‘I also knew before the game started I wasn’t going to get on and I was disappointed with that, but I was praying for the team to win and it was sad it didn’t happen, but hopefully on Saturday night we can put things right.’
It was to be Makelele’s last Chelsea appearance and it was the nature of the holding midfielder position that convinced Mikel he was unlikely to be brought on as a game-changing substitute.
Salomon Kalou was on the bench that day too but was deployed late on and indeed took one of the penalties in the deciding shoot-out, so Mikel is the only unused sub from Moscow still at Chelsea.
Now he stands on the verge of his first appearance in a Champions League Final as one of the pillars of the revival under Roberto Di Matteo.
With the team formation tweaked to 4-2-3-1, he and Frank Lampard have dovetailed well at the base of midfield with Mikel remaining back more often while the England international chooses his moments to advance.
We saw it in operation in the FA Cup Final when Lampard and Drogba took the plaudits for the second, and ultimately winning goal against Liverpool, but Mikel did well with ball to set them on their way.
‘I know,’ he smiles, ‘but this is the thing when you play in that position, you don’t get as much credit as you deserve – but if we keep winning I am happy.’
A few months ago Chelsea weren’t winning and Mikel wasn’t happy. He spoke to the national newspapers a week ago about how he was in the dark over why he lost his place in the team when Andre Villas-Boas was manager, having been a relatively regular choice early in the campaign. A similar communication deficit with others in squad didn’t help the team’s form the Nigerian believes.
‘Now Robbie speaks to everyone and treats everyone the same,’ Mikel says of current life at Chelsea, ‘ and I am grateful to Robbie as not only did he give me the chance but he believes in me, and I am happy to give him everything I have, and make sure the team keeps winning.
‘It has been going well for the team generally and we have found a way to play. It has been working for us and hopefully it is going to work against Munich.
‘The technical crew having been doing well, and the physios who have been working hard to get everyone fit.
‘They have been massive in this run of games because we have been playing every three days and they have tried to keep everyone fit and fresh, and credit to them for that job. We just want to keep doing what we are doing.’
So much so that a mention of Bayern midfielders with big reputations like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos only leads to Mikel acknowledging their quality but emphasising that Chelsea must concentrate on playing to our top standard rather than thinking too much about the opposition. But then nothing about the 25-year-old’s demeanour on or off the pitch suggests he’ll be flustered by the idea of playing in the world’s greatest club game.
‘It is a big one and hopefully it is going to go our way. If we can grab a goal in the early stages it is going to be good but we need to make sure we don’t conceded early on.
‘It is going to be a very exciting game, and a very difficult game for us because we have key players missing, but those who are stepping in want to make this club proud.
‘After the team lost in Moscow I could see how much it meant to the players, but now we have another chance.’
Or in Mikel’s case, a first opportunity to make an impact in a game that will decide the destiny of the European Cup.
John Mikel Obi and his team-mates will once again be wearing the name of Chelsea’s global charity partner Right To Play on their shirts during the game.
‘It is good that people see that we as a club support Right To Play and what the players stand for,’ Mikel says.
‘We want to promote this work in countries around the world and hopefully all these viewers seeing it can help the kids.’