John Obi Mikel: 'Everyone knows that Arsenal play fantastic football. But we do as well...'

As he prepares for Chelsea's key game at the Emirates tomorrow, John Obi Mikel talks to Sam Wallace about playing styles, his kinship with other African players and the debt he owes to Jose Mourinho
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The Independent Football

John Obi Mikel has had to learn about English football quickly very quickly and at 20 years old you might be surprised at just how astute his judgement has become. He is answering the age-old question about how his Chelsea team measure up to Arsenal: their old rivals, the team that everyone loves to watch and their opponents tomorrow. Why can't Chelsea play Arsenal's kind of football?

Mikel would like to disagree. "In the past, five or six years ago, Chelsea were not involved at the top of the table. They didn't play football like that and I think it is going to take a while to convince people that this is actually what we do, we play good football. It's been Arsenal's tradition since Arsne Wenger has been there, that they play good football. Their system hasn't been changed which is why people give them the credit. But I think we play really well, not just us but Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. There are other teams in the Premiership who play good football as well.

"Everyone knows who Arsenal are, they play good football, fantastic football. Everyone loves to watch Arsenal play. But I think we do as well, we can play and we have that fighting spirit. We can stick in there and make sure we don't lose, which we have to do at the Emirates."

When you put aside all the Sky Sports hype about the Big Four's "Grand Slam Sunday" tomorrow, it is actually stories like the life of young Mikel that are the real miracles of the modern Premier League. When we meet at Chelsea's training ground the story of his transfer wrangle with Manchester United is off-limits for legal reasons. But what remains is still a remarkable tale of a 20-year-old prodigy from the northern Nigerian city of Jos who has established himself in the most competitive squad in the Premier League and displaced arguably the greatest holding midfielder of his generation.

That is Claude Makelele, who may yet play alongside Mikel tomorrow in the Chelsea midfield in a game that will be a showcase for much of the African talent in the Premier League. There will be Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Tour, Emmanuel Ebou, Emmanuel Adebayor and the kid from Jos. It seems a daft question to ask Mikel if he feels a connection with them he is the only Nigerian after all but he instinctively says that he does. "It's African culture," he says, "if I see an African man I have to say hello. I get on well with Adebayor. When we see each other he is like a friend to me. We always say hello, it's an African connection."

The African Nations tournament in the new year will have to wait: for now tomorrow is the big one. Without the suspended Michael Essien, a weight of responsibility falls upon Mikel. With one so young and enthusiastic about life it seems cruel to remind him about the Carling Cup final last February when he came on as a substitute against Arsenal and was sent off for his part in the mass brawl that ended in three dismissals. Only in his second season, Mikel has already been sent off three times for Chelsea but he insists he is not the Premier League's new hatchet man.

"Football is an emotional game," Mikel says. "My first red card against Reading [for two yellows in October last year] I deserved that. That was a stupid challenge, I shouldn't have done that. Against Arsenal in the Carling Cup I don't know what happened. It was crazy. I didn't do anything and the referee sent me off. I understand why he did because both of us [Mikel and Tour] sparked everything. The Manchester United one [for a foul on Patrice Evra in September]? I don't want to talk about it.

"That's not me. Everyone who knows me, knows the way I play and knows that I like to play football not tackle. I have only really tackled since I have been at Chelsea, since I have been in English football. I have to do it because that's the way English football is I had to learn that because that's the way it works. There are lots of tackles flying in everywhere. If you want to succeed in English football you have to have everything, you have to be everywhere. You have to be aggressive, tackle a lot. But I like to play football, I like to keep the ball, I like to make sure the team plays well."

He has certainly learnt quickly when it comes to the art of tackling although yesterday Mikel was on a different kind of duty for Chelsea. The club have won the Elmbridge Community Disability award for a partnership with Brooklands College which has developed one of the biggest college disability football programmes in the country. More than 30 young people male and female from Surrey and south west London have participated. The regional league has been conquered and the squad were delighted to be kicking a ball around with Mikel yesterday at the club's Cobham training ground.

In short, it was some reassuring proof that Chelsea are not just about the power, the money and the pursuit of world domination. Mikel's story certainly connects two very different worlds he points out early on that he had only ever played six matches as a professional before he made his Chelsea debut last season. When Chelsea finally agreed to pay United 12m and Lyn Oslo in Norway another 4m for Mikel in the summer of last year, the man himself, then just 19, had been out of football for a year while he waited for the problem to be resolved.

In his first season he was reprimanded by Jose Mourinho for sleeping in and turning up late for training, a mistake to which Mikel readily admits. "My first proper professional club was Chelsea and it was really difficult for me to adapt from my youth team in Nigeria to come here," he says. "I knew it was going to be difficult with names like Lampard, Ballack, and Shevchenko in the squad. But when you get to know these people you see they are nice guys and good people."

He jokes that he has proved wrong everyone in Nigeria who said he should join United because he would have had more chance of getting a game there and there is a special debt to Didier Drogba. "They are nice guys here and they all helped me in different ways," he says. "Drogba was always there for me because every time I did something wrong Mourinho went to him and complained. Then Drogba came to me and I got it second-hand. Clarkey [Steve Clarke] and Mourinho really liked me Mourinho gave me the confidence to be who I am today."

It's the big, unavoidable question at Chelsea: what is life like post-Mourinho? It would have been easy for Mikel to skip this one but he takes a deep breath and gives an honest, heartfelt answer.

"I will always appreciate what Mourinho did for me," he says. "I had my problems and he stood by me. He said 'I want that player no matter what he costs'. He stood by me and he made sure everything came true. That's why I say he was like my father; here he was my dad. Outside football he would always ask me what I was doing 'Are you taking care of your family?' things like that. He was there for me and I really appreciate it. Now everything has happened and he's gone but he is still in my mind. We just have to keep going and the new manager has done fantastically well.

"I don't think a lot has been changed, it is still the same club. The new technical crew are doing a very good job. What happened has happened. It was like a shock, 'How are we going to get through this?' but everyone is back doing a really good job and we are doing well. I'm telling you the team is in good spirits, after what happened we just try to move on. We're doing this for ourselves and for our team and we have to support whoever is there. That's why the team is doing well."

Mikel goes back to Nigeria in his holidays and talks of Jos with real passion. Its high altitude means that, in his words, "the weather is like Europe" and when he goes back he takes bibs, balls and whatever else he can lay his hands on for his old youth team El-Kanmi. They have one very special player, his younger brother Patrick who, at 16, Mikel says, is some talent. "Everyone says he is going to be better than me but I don't know, I don't think so," he says with a laugh. "He plays in the same position."

His older brother Ebere is a goalkeeper and Mikel grew up in what he says was a very religious Christian home with his parents his father Michael is a civil servant. Like the rest of Nigeria, the people of Jos await the African Cup of Nations tournament in January and February with enormous excitement. The best African footballers from all over the world will converge on Ghana to represent their countries in a tournament that will doubtless draw the ire of Premier League managers again. Mikel says that tournament, which is older than the European Championships, is crucial for African footballers.

"I don't go there just thinking 'I don't want to be injured'," he says. "It is my country and everyone loves to play for their country. It's like the English and the England team, it's the same for the African countries. Everyone will go there and play with their hearts. I don't see why the African Cup of Nations should be an exception, that we shouldn't play well we have to go there and make sure we play really well for our countries."

He is back on good terms with Nigeria's manager Berti Vogts after a fall-out when he withdrew from an international with injury "I'm always good with the manager when I go to play games," he says but he has reservations about the Nigeria team itself.

"I do believe in Nigeria that we have lots and lots of quality players but we don't have a team. It has taken them a long time to notice that and see that it is our problem. That is what I see and so do the players. We need someone to bring the team together."

In the Premier League, Chelsea will be hit the hardest by the African Cup of Nations but Mikel says they will survive, dropping a big hint that Michael Ballack is very close to a return to fitness. "For us it is really good that Ballack is back," he says. "Of course it is going to be a test [when the African players are away] but I still think we will do it. We have fantastic players, there is always someone to cover your position. That's how it is with Chelsea. If you sleep there is someone there to take your place. That's why you have to be on your toes. But even without some of us here, we will be fine I believe that."

Out for Africa: The footballers going to Ghana

Nearly 50 English-based players could be called up to next month's African Cup of Nations with possible repercussions for several Premier League clubs. Chelsea, Everton, Portsmouth and Newcastle are likely to be the most severely affected.

Not everyone travels. Arsenal lose two important players but not Emmanuel Adebayor, as Togo have not qualified. Neither have Zimbabwe, so Mwaruwari Benjani stays at Fratton Park. Lauren may also remain though Cameroon coach Otto Pfister is trying to woo him back. South Africa have surprisingly dropped Benni McCarthy and Mali have omitted Djimi Traor.

To date only Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and South Africa have named provisional squads with all teams due to do so by 24 December. Final squads have to be named by 10 January but while the tournament, in Ghana, runs from 20 January to 10 February, Fifa regulations permit players to be called up to pre-training camps from 6 January.

* AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS: PROBABLE CALL-UPS

* ARSENAL: Kolo Tour, Emmanuel Ebou (Ivory Coast), Alex Song Billong (Cameroon)

* BIRMINGHAM: Richard Kingson (Ghana), Mehdi Nafti, Radhi Jaidi (both Tunisia)

* BLACKBURN: Aaron Mokoena (South Africa)

* BOLTON: El-Hadji Diouf (Senegal), Abdoulaye Mit (Ivory Coast)

* CHELSEA: John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana)

* EVERTON : Joseph Yobo, Ayegbeni Yakubu (both Nigeria), Steven Pienaar (South Africa)

* LIVERPOOL: Nabil El-Zhar (Morocco), Momo Sissoko (Mali)

* MIDDLESBROUGH: Mohamed Shawky (Egypt)

* NEWCASTLE: Obafemi Martins (Nigeria), Geremi (Cameroon), Abdoulaye Faye, Habib Beye (Senegal)

* PORTSMOUTH: Papa Bouba Diop (Senegal), Kanu, John Utaka (Nigeria), Sulley Muntari (Ghana), Lauren (Cameroon)

* READING: Andre Bikey (Cameroon), Emerse Fae (Ivory Coast), Ibrahima Sonko (Senegal)

* SUNDERLAND: Dickson Etuhu (Nigeria)

* TOTTENHAM: Hossam Ghaly (Egypt), Didier Zokora (Ivory Coast)

* WEST HAM UNITED: John Pantsil (Ghana), Henri Camara (Senegal)

* WIGAN: Salomon Olembe (Cameroon), Julius Aghahowa (Nigeria)

* CHAMPIONSHIP: Patrick Agyemang (Preston & Ghana), Mohamed Camara (Norwich on loan from Derby, & Guinea), Khalilou Fadiga (Coventry & Senegal), Elvis Hammond (Leicester & Ghana), Seyi Olofinjana (Wolves & Nigeria), Youssef Safri (Southampton & Morocco), Danny Shittu (Watford & Nigeria), Mamady Sidibe (Stoke & Mali).

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