The Blues host Bournemouth on Boxing Day without their midfield firefighter, and the Super Eagles captain deserves the chance for one last run out at Stamford Bridge. Premier League table toppers Chelsea go into their Boxing Day clash with Bournemouth shorn of both N’Golo Kante and Diego Costa. For the Blues, it will be a huge test of the mettle and willpower that manager Antonio Conte has managed to infuse. For all the talk of the 3-4-2-1 system he has deployed, his real triumph has been in whipping up an abiding adhesion where prior to his arrival there was an amorphous rabble. However, no matter how synergetic a team is set up, there are invariably standout players, without whom the team is weaker, if not in character then certainly in quality.
With the absence of Eden Hazard, and now the suspensions of Kante and Costa, Conte has lost three of the four most important players in his system. The latter two especially embody the work ethic and tenacity that is the hallmark of the new Chelsea: they are unbeaten in 11, and have conceded only thrice in that incredible run. A huge part of that run has owed to Conte’s ability to select a settled side, freed from the burden of European football. As the top two league positions show, this is undoubtedly an advantage; however, there has been evidence in recent weeks that this is a team that can recalibrate in the absence of a few mainstays. Hazard has missed the last two games, while Cesc Fabregas came in from the wilderness in the 3-1 win at Manchester City. The loss of Kante will be the ultimate test of malleability though, and in his absence perhaps it would not be the worst idea in the world to take the training wheels off the team’s second longest-serving player, Mikel John Obi.
The Nigeria captain has yet to make an appearance this season for Chelsea in any competition, and is widely reported to be on his way out of Stamford Bridge. Marseille seems the likeliest destination in the January transfer window, which will open in under two weeks. With the 28-year-old already dangling one foot out the door, why then should Conte call upon him at this time? Bournemouth are certainly not the toughest opponents in the course of the run, but they showed recently against both Liverpool and Arsenal (to varying degrees) that they can be a real handful. A midfield with Nemanja Matic and Fabregas would be unable to offer the requisite amount of defensive discipline.
Fabregas’s reintroduction in recent games has typically been at the expense of Matic, with Kante trusted to do the work of two players off the ball. Chelsea notably struggled at the Etihad three weeks ago, before a combination of wasteful finishing and Pep Guardiola’s chaotic defensive shape gave Conte’s men a route back into the game.
Mikel does not himself offer Kante’s bustle – who does? However, he will keep the team ticking over nicely and hold his position in front of the back three. With so many influential players unavailable, this is the sort of game where a draw would be a good result for the league leaders. They are extremely well-drilled, but without the forward threat of Costa, Bournemouth will even further motivated to have a proper go, and discretion may very well be the better part of valour. From a sentimental point of view, it would be a shame to see a player of Mikel’s outstanding service and dedication leave the club without so much as a chance to say goodbye. He is hardly a loose cannon – Chelsea have won the Uefa Champions League with the midfielder providing the impetus from deep in midfield.
Surely, it would be only fair for his years of commitment to be acknowledged. Conte’s intensity has won him many admirers, but even that is built on emotional release, rather than cool detachment. Aside the possibility of a rather gung-ho Matic-Fabregas duo, all other options carry an element of risk. It certainly does not seem the sort of game for Nathaniel Chalobah to make a first league start. Mikel is a veteran and a consummate professional, a known quantity who can tide Chelsea over one last time. It may well be his final act in blue.