John Obi Mikel tips England to reach World Cup Semi Final ahead of Nigeria Friendly
As John Obi Mikel looks up at the giant arch over Wembley Stadium, a piercing fire alarm goes off and buys him some time.
The Nigeria captain is back in England, back in the country where he spent a gilded decade at Chelsea, and preparing to face Gareth Southgate’s fresh-faced side.
He is considering what Saturday’s opposition is capable of at the World Cup in Russia – and his expectations are high.
Mikel told SunSport: “I’m looking at England and thinking, why not? I think they will be there come the last four, that’s how much I rate this team.
“One thing this England team has got now is youth. It is almost the same as the Nigerian team with youth, energy, pace and power.
“That’s the one thing this England team has now that you haven’t seen in a long time. Yes, [Frank] Lampard and [Steven] Gerrard had all of this but not as pacey and quick.
“Now that they play five at the back, which I think suits this team a bit more, they don’t concede a lot and they have quick players on the counter, which suits England really well.”
But Mikel is well-aware of the past problems for the Three Lions. Having played alongside the likes of John Terry, Lampard, Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill during his time at Stamford Bridge, he saw England’s struggles up close.
The 31-year-old said: “For some reason, every time this national team just couldn’t work out how to play. Is it better to play with Lamps and Gerrard together? Is it better to leave one out? I think they just couldn’t figure that one out and I think it would have been best to have both.”
Southgate’s side has a fresh face in midfield now, though, one that Mikel knows well and excites him.
Mention of Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s name sees him puff out his cheeks as he lists off the qualities he saw on Chelsea’s training pitches at Cobham.
Mikel said: “He was an amazing talent when I was at Chelsea. I used to speak to him a lot. John Terry, Frank Lampard and I used to give him advice, and the important thing is that he’s a good kid, he listens a lot, a very humble kid.
“He excites me every time I see him play, during training, everything he does is amazing. He will definitely, definitely be one for the future for England.
“I think he needs to try and figure out where his natural position is, where he fits well, but for me I see him as a number 10 behind the strikers because he has the power to drive the ball and give defenders a break.”
In fact, it is a position Mikel is learning as well. At Chelsea, he was the defensive wall charged with protecting the back four.
For Nigeria and Tianjin Teda, the Chinese Super League club he joined in January 2017, he is the creative link to attack.
On Saturday, he will likely play behind former Watford striker Odion Ighalo. Mikel said: “It is difficult most of the time to switch it.
“My natural position growing up was as an offensive player, and then I spent 11 years of my life as a holding player and you tend to lose a lot of creativity.
“Now, at the end of my career, moving to China and with the national team, I am expressing myself a bit more, the way I want to do it.”
Mikel is conscious of the view of the Chinese Super League as a retirement home for the Premier League’s well-heeled but aging quarters.
But Mikel points to the arrival of former Chelsea teammate Oscar who joined Shanghai SIPG in 2016 at the age of 25.
He said: “A lot of players are going out there now in their prime to play, to change the football.
“We want to change the Chinese league, that’s one of the reasons we are there – we want to be part of the players that brought the Chinese league to a certain level.
“For me, the culture change was one of the main reasons I made the move as well. I wanted to try something new.
“I’d been in one place, one dressing room for almost 11 years. Why not go out of the box and forget about the Premier League for a second?”
Mikel produces a toothy smile and thumbs up as Ighalo, now also playing in China, passes by. This has not always been a happy camp, though.
Mikel missed the 2010 World Cup due to injury but was aware of the conflicts in Germany that led to the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, suspending the team from competition for two years.
Four years later, in Brazil, Mikel describes his first involvement at a World Cup as a “disaster” as the team was fractured by pay disputes and training boycotts.
Mikel is one of the few survivors of head coach Gernot Rohr’s cull when he took charge in 2016.
He said: “Anybody who comes into this camp can see the discipline and togetherness that we have.
“We try to criticize each other as much as we can on the pitch, everybody needs to work and be on their toes.
“Yes, after we can be friends, have a laugh, have a chat, but in the game we want to win.”
Winning will be a tall order in Russia, though. Nigeria were drawn in the so-called ‘Group of Death’, alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.
And Mikel is realistic when it comes to expectation. He said: “We are nowhere near favourites to win the World Cup, nowhere near.
“We just want to go and give a good performance, give a good account of ourselves.
“I don’t want to put a mark on it but we want to do well, we want to come out of the group stage, get into the last 16.
“Why not go one better? We are in a very difficult group so we want to take each game as it comes.”
Their first task is against England in a stadium where Mikel lifted five trophies in Chelsea blue.
He said: “Wembley is like my second home, my second Stamford Bridge.
“I’ve had so many games there and I’ve had my share of luck, winning a few games at Wembley and let’s hope tomorrow (Saturday, 2nd June) is the same.”
Source: The Sun Football
Feature Image: AFP