17 Oct 2016

Playing for Nigeria has cost Mikel his place in Chelsea

Dimeji Lawal  says  he is amazed by some of the criticism Nigeria captain  Mikel Obi  has faced as Chelsea manager Antonio Conte continues to overlook him.
 Mikel, who  is Chelsea’s second longest serving player after  John Terry,  has not featured for the Premier League giants since the beginning of the season.
The 29-year-old midfielder guided the national Under-23 team to a memorable bronze at the Rio Olympic Games in August 20   – and returned  the following month to lead the Super Eagles to a 1-0 victory over Tanzania in a Gabon 2017 Africa Cup of Nations  qualifier in Uyo.
Mikel starred in the Eagles’ 2-1 defeat of Zambia’s Chipolopolo in their opening Russia 2018 World Cup Group B qualifier at   Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola on October 9.
Despite  the  2012  UEFA Champions League winner’s impressive performance against Zambia, Italian manager Conte still kept him out the lineup for Saturday’s match against Leicester City, which the Blues won 3-0.  The development has seen Mikel receiving more criticism back home.
And former Nigeria winger Dimeji says football fans and pundits in Nigeria should sympathise with the player rather than criticising   him.
The Saudi ’89 FIFA Under-20 World Cup silver medallist claims Mikel is paying the price  for abandoning Chelsea’s preseason for the Olympics.
According to the  FIFA-licensed players’ agent, Conte  is not happy that the South Africa 2013 Africa Cup of Nations winner opted to represent Nigeria at Rio 2016.
The Olympics is not on the FIFA international calendar so clubs are not required to release players for the tournament – and many big European clubs, including Chelsea, did everything  to to prevent their star players going to the Games.
Mikel  had admitted opting to miss the preseason  was a tough choice, especially as   former Italy coach Conte was new to the London side.
“It is difficult to leave Chelsea at this time,” Mikel told the Evening Standard. “But I explained to the club why I wanted to go and I thank them for their understanding and allowing me to be a part of this.”
And following the arrival of Frenchman  N’Golo Kante from  Premier League champions Leicester City, some the British media  had predicted that Mikel had  potentially sacrificed his place in  the  team after opting to represent his country at Rio 2016.
 Former Belgium-based attacker Dimeji saluted Mikel for his commitment to the national team, saying he deserved some respect for his contribution to the game.
“Playing at the Olympics affected Mikel at Chelsea,”  the former Spain-based  player told our correspondent on the telephone on Sunday.
“I remember that Conte was always praising Mikel until he decided to play at the Olympics.
“I’m not surprised that Conte  has decided not to feature him in any of his games – he probably feels  let down by the player.”
Dimeji added, “It’s unfortunate that some Nigerians are criticising him.  Some are saying he should be dropped from the Eagles because he’s not playing  for his club.
“They are wrong. Mikel played a key role in the victory over Zambia. In the Eagles, every move begins with him.
“The young players, particularly (Alex) Iwobi and (Kelechi) Iheanacho look up to him. He deserves respect.”

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