While both part of successful Chelsea squads, Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel have never quite managed to win over the entire Chelsea following. Both established members of the senior squad, they get plenty of games each season, and yet their performances still create a divide as fans oscillate in their opinion of them.
Kalou, now in his fifth season with the club, has consistently featured in a healthy amount of games. Although he is not a regular starter, he virtually always comes on should he start on the bench. He was getting games ahead of Joe Cole, and one of the reasons that the latter was getting less minutes on the pitch than he wanted. Kalou’s goal return is also useful, without being prolific. It is hard for a player that is not first choice to get regular goals, but Kalou has chipped in consistently (14, 12, 10, 12 in his last four seasons).
More importantly than the number of goals, is the importance of some of his strikes. Late equalisers at home to Spurs in FA Cup, and against Man United in the league spring to mind. As well as a goal, and two stonewall penalty claims, in last season’s quarter final with Inter.
Kalou has never been a first pick at Chelsea, and probably never will be, but he seems content with the role he plays. In the same way, Chelsea fans are content with his contribution: he’s not setting the league alight, but there is an awareness that he still has a great amount to give.
For Mikel, the situation is slightly different, and is about to get a little tougher. The Nigerian has been a certain starter since his graduation from Claude Makelele’s understudy. Chelsea fought hard to sign Mikel with the much publicised compensation paid to Manchester United, and they will ultimately feel that they did the right thing. In a team packed with stars, Mikel has little glamour to offer; he doesn’t have the passing range of his teammates, or the technical skill, but he is the best enforcer the club possess – better than Michael Essien. While Essien – who I believe to be the most complete midfielder in the league – is a far better footballer, he doesn’t have the rigid discipline that Mikel has, and in a midfield three, Mikel is better at simply sitting in, and protecting his backline.
Mikel’s place is now under threat. Before this season, the combination of Mikel, Essien and Lampard was a pretty straightforward pick for the midfield places. Now, with the arrival of Ramires, Chelsea have the option of a far more dynamic midfield. If Lampard and Essien were accompanied by Ramires, there would be a new dimension added. Whether Essien would move back, or Ramires would simply take Mikel’s role for himself (or even if they shared it through the course of a match), there would still be a more vibrant style of play on show.
Big games are always a good indication of how a manager thinks about his squad, and I still maintain that come the trip to Old Trafford, or on important European nights, Mikel will start. Ramires looks like he could be a very good player, and it is a signing that I’m excited about, but adapting to the Premiership will surely take time. He will however, believe that there is a chance he can make the position his own.
For both players, winning over all the fans that watch them play will almost be impossible. They are not maligned, or barraged with abuse, because they are still good players – we are not talking about sulking egomaniacs who can’t kick a ball. Their contribution to the squad and their lower profiles reflect the perception that fans have of them. Chelsea fans will never love them wholeheartedly because they don’t do what the likes of Drogba, Cole, and Lampard do. But if players that are the calibre of Kalou an Mikel are squad players (Mikel may be one soon), then it must be a very healthy squad to boast about.
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