John Obi Mikel is relishing a role at the heart of the Chelsea team – and is determined to keep his head this season. The 21-year-old has made the most of the opportunity presented after a serious knee injury ruled out Michael Essien until the latter stages of the campaign.
Mikel chalked up his 100th Chelsea appearance in the defeat by Arsenal last Sunday. The Nigerian midfielder, who headed to Stamford Bridge two years after initially agreeing to join rivals Manchester United, had been criticised for a perceived discipline problem in the past – he was sent off in the closing moments of the 2007 Carling Cup final against the Gunners at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and then again twice last season.
However, Mikel is very much now focused on the future. "I thought about everything coming into this season – about how to improve my game, how to get myself in the team, and I thought about how to get the cards right," Mikel said, "This is a season where everything I thought about beforehand is happening. I am happy with myself, I am happy about not getting cards because, before, by this time in the season I would have had one or two reds. So far it has been going well."
Mikel now feels he has earned the full respect of his team-mates. He recalled: "I made a speech before a game at Middlesbrough in the dressing room, and after I had finished, John Terry said, 'Now you are a man'. If people like John Terry and Frank Lampard say I am now a man, I am a man." Mikel believes regular football has helped. "I am really pleased with it," he said, having made his 13th appearance out of 15 Premier League games last weekend. "We will have to see what happens when Michael comes back. He is a great player, so I do not know if I am going to play, he is going to play, or we both play. It is up to the manager."
Luiz Felipe Scolari's main concern, however, is to get his side back to the winning football they played earlier in the campaign. Chelsea have failed to beat any of their top three rivals at home, where they have now dropped 12 points. The Blues were also dumped out of the Carling Cup by Burnley and need to beat CFR Cluj next week to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League. Much has been made of the apparent loss of form, especially at Stamford Bridge, given their 100 per cent away record from seven games.
Terry, Chelsea's captain, is determined to keep the team focused. Speaking in his programme notes ahead of the Arsenal game, he said: "Winning major trophies is hard. It takes great quality, athleticism, commitment, stamina and decision-making."
Joe Cole could return from a ankle problem for the trip to Bolton tomorrow, where the striker Nicolas Anelka will face another of his old clubs. Didier Drogba – who has been the subject of renewed transfer speculation – will serve the last of his three-match suspension, imposed by the Football Association after the Ivorian threw a coin into the away crowd against Burnley.