LAGOS (AFP) – Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi, making his debut at the World Cup finals, will be crucial in determining how far Nigeria go in Brazil.
According to former Nigeria coach Samson Siasia, Mikel and forwards Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike will be the central players for the African champions.
“Mikel will be key for Nigeria, having played at the highest level for a top club like Chelsea for many years. Such an experience should count for something,” he said.
But Siasia, who featured for Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup, said he was concerned that the 27-year-old Mikel and some of the Super Eagles’ top stars had not been first-team regulars at their clubs.
“The biggest problem (for the team) is that most of the players did not play regularly for their various clubs and this cannot be good for the team,” he said.
“What you can do when the players come together for the training camp for the World Cup would be mostly tactical and so I don’t know how (coach Stephen) Keshi will go around this problem.”
Former Nigeria striker Benedict Akwuegbu also said he expected Mikel to play a big role and described him as “the engine room of the Eagles’ midfield”.
– Vision and skill –
Mikel, who missed the last World Cup finals because of a knee injury, is a holding midfielder club at the English Premier League side but is given a freer, more attacking role for his country as Lazio youngster Ogenyi Onazi does all the grafting alongside him.
He started out as an attacking midfielder and it was in that role that he was voted the second best player at the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup behind four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi.
His superb vision and ball skills prompted Nigeria’s media to compare him with the legendary Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha.
But he was overlooked by Nigeria for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the west African giants reached a second tournament final.
There was also a time when his commitment to the national team was questioned.
But Keshi said he was delighted the player has shone under him as the Eagles won a third Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa last year and also featured at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
After domestic and Champions League success with Chelsea, Mikel is now targeting the biggest stage of them all.
“I missed the 2010 World Cup due to injury. I am looking forward to Brazil with great expectations,” he said.
“It will be a great and rewarding tournament for us. Looking at our team right now we are good enough to do well in Brazil.”
– ‘We are good to go’ –
The Eagles face Argentina, Bosnia and Iran in the first round Group F and Mikel said he expected Nigeria to reach the knock-out stage, as they did in 1994 and 1998.
“It is a good draw for us but not an easy one. All the teams at the World Cup have the same dream and that is to win,” he said.
“Argentina are the favourites in our group and to even win the World Cup but Iran and Bosnia won’t be pushovers.
“Argentina are a top side,but they have been lucky to beat us three times at the World Cup. We will go for them this time. This time around they won’t be lucky, we are good to go.
“We will take all the games as they come with all seriousness.
“We will go for victory in our opening game against Iran as the first game is always very important in such a competition, then we do so for other games. I am sure we will progress from the group.”