The Cinderella story continues, as Burkina Faso knocked off an extremely over-matched Ghana squad with a shootout victory in the semifinals. In the African Nations Cup final on Sunday, they will face Nigeria, a team coming off a few upsets of its own, including a win over Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals.
Both countries have been playing outstanding football, but one player will be key to his team’s success: John Obi Mikel.
Nigeria is the more talented team, and the Chelsea midfielder is the squad's most valuable player. One could argue that he has been the best player on the pitch in every game so far this tournament.
Unlike his play with Chelsea, moreover, Mikel has been greatly involved on the offensive side of the ball, setting up teammates as well as taking chances of his own.
With this freedom, Mikel has been able to slice defenses and create goal-scoring opportunities for others, making a name for many of his teammates. For instance, not many people had heard of Emmanuel Emenike before this tournament, but with Mikel’s help, he has scored four goals leading up the final.
With this attacking attitude, however, Mikel still manages to fill his role defensively. He is all over the place, hardly ever leaving your screen. Mikel can do this thanks to his fitness and athletic ability but also because Nigeria plays with a packed midfield and only one striker, Emenike.
Mikel has often led the midfield unit up the field as they try to link with Emenike who has excelled at holding the ball up top and making runs towards goal.
If you do not think Mikel will be the key to a Nigeria victory come Sunday, then just look at Chelsea in his absence. Although the Premier League club is also missing Nigerian midfielder, Victor Moses, it has been clear that Mikel’s loss has contributed to their 2-2-4 record during the African Nations Cup.
Nigeria’s strongest area is their midfield, and with Burkina Faso’s injury concerns, look for Mikel and company to dominate the final.