SELHURST PARK, London — Chelsea have been crying out for a saviour this season.
Roman Abramovich sacked Jose Mourinho only last month in search of one. Chelsea, meanwhile, are being linked with big names from across Europe in the January transfer window to bolster their squad and turn around their ailing campaign.
But maybe, just maybe, Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy should have listened to the teachings of Warden Samuel Norton from The Shawshank Redemption all along.
"Salvation lies within," the warden declares to Andy Dufresne in the film based on Stephen King's novella, proudly passing him a copy of his cherished Bible.
Indeed it does for Dufresne, who uses the holy scriptures to conceal his rock hammer while chipping away at the hole in the wall in his cell that allows him to escape the prison's walls.
If Chelsea are the Bible in this metaphor, then John Obi Mikel is their rock hammer. Until recently, he has taken a back seat, but—as if from nowhere—he has now emerged from the shadows to step into the light and chip away at the mammoth task that lies ahead.
That Mikel's resurrection as a bona fide footballer has happened over the Christmas period only makes it all the more biblical in every sense for Chelsea.
Salvation may well have arrived.
Not since that victorious Champions League campaign in 2012 has Mikel looked this good.
There have been times he has seemed to be a forgotten man at Stamford Bridge; a player blocking the pathway of emerging youth talent into the first team.
For too long we've expected the 28-year-old to be sold on. He's had the look of being nothing more than an expensive and frustrating squad player in recent years.
What Mikel has shown in two-and-a-half games this past week is that he can have a massive impact on where Chelsea's season goes.
Simon Johnson @sjstandardsport
mikel quickly entering 'first name on the team-sheet' category..new lease of life under Guus1/3/2016, 2:39:51 PM
Not from the bench, but by starting matches and giving the Blues an option we didn't really think they had in defensive midfield.
He's look revitalised, strangely at ease with the role that Guus Hiddink has asked him to play in midfield in an attempt to bring balance to what has been a troublesome area for Chelsea for much of the season.
It continued against Crystal Palace where Mikel completely dominated to help Chelsea earn a convincing 3-0 victory and a first away win since August.
"I think he's the ideal player in my option to bring balance to the team," Hiddink said after Sunday's game.
The manager's praise was glowing, as it should be. Hiddink hasn't changed much since he took over the reins from Mourinho. The system is pretty much as it was, and the only significant changes have been forced by injury or suspension.
It's the decision to opt for Mikel that has been Hiddink's real masterstroke, though.
"If the team does not have the right balance, then you concede a lot of goals," he continued. "I thought John could be one of the key figures in getting back the balance.
"He can recover, he reads the game very well and knows where the strength of the opponent is. He knows exactly how to cope with that; he has a very good eye, very good sense for where to recover.
"He doesn't do it in a brutal way. He is very elegant and that's what I like to see very much. It's beautiful to see."
Dan Levene @danlevene
The Chelsea end is singing 'John Obi Mikel'. Lad's gone mainstream now. Tsk.1/3/2016, 3:12:44 PM
Beautiful may be pushing it for now, yet it must be said that Mikel's recent displays have been eye-catching for all the right reasons.
From nowhere, Chelsea suddenly have control and for a team that is still looking over their shoulder at the relegation zone—Sunday's win means the Blues are still only six points clear of 18th-placed Newcastle United—that's a very big deal.
Struggling teams like Chelsea don't normally play with the sort of authority we saw at Selhurst Park; especially against opponents who are far superior in the league standings.
We expect teams in the bottom half of the table—let alone quarter—to win games through a bit of luck and hard graft. Maybe get a smash and grab to build some confidence and momentum.
It wasn't like that for Chelsea. Their performance was as close to the Chelsea of 2014/15 than we have seen since, well, 2014/15. They were in charge, they were the big boys and Palace the minnows. They bossed it.
It's because of Mikel we're expecting this latest victory to be much more than another false dawn. He gave Chelsea real purpose against Palace, and we haven't seen enough of that all season.
It wasn't just the way Mikel played the ball that impressed; what we saw on Sunday was a player stepping up, taking ownership of his role and leading those around him.
Few could have predicted these words being written, but Mikel guided Cesc Fabregas through the game at Selhurst Park. He was the player setting everything up, the man doing all the talking. And from there, the Spaniard enjoyed one of his best displays in a long while.
It was reminiscent of the road to Munich and that May night in Bavaria itself. Mikel was just a cog in the machine back then, though. He was happy to let the senior names take on the burden of dragging Chelsea to glory, following their lead.
But Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech are gone. Chelsea are in need of new leaders, new heroes now.
Could Mikel be emerging as one of them?
We're not judging Chelsea's season by what we've seen at Christmas. The 15 games leading up to the festive period told us much more about this team and where they are.
The contradiction here is that it would be wrong to judge Mikel on everything leading up this past week—it feels very different right now.
After close to 10 years in west London, he seems to be maturing and producing the sort of performances Chelsea fans have craved from him.
All this time Chelsea have been looking for answers, and one of the most significant has been under their noses.
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