Mikel John Obi probably expected few plaudits after what was likely his greatest game playing for Chelsea.
Those were all reserved for Didier Drogba, for his late equaliser and winning penalty against Bayern Munich, and for Petr Cech, for his key saves from 12 yards. The former was voted UEFA’s man of the match while the latter got the fans’ votes.
Yet aided by the team’s ultra-defensive approach at the Allianz Arena, Mikel’s exploits in what was Chelsea’s biggest game in their history at the time helped in silencing the sea of red and white in Bavaria.
His name ought to be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned pair, and some would argue he was the single best performer in the 2012 Champions League final.
Indeed, most of the praise the Nigerian has received since has been with 20/20 hindsight, but he was prepared for this sort of thing when he moved to west London in 2006 after a protracted transfer saga involving Manchester United.
“I did quickly grow to understand that. I spoke to [Claude] Makelele during my first season. He knew I was going to one day take over the [defensive midfield] role from him,” Mikel recounted to The Athletic in 2021.
“He told me, ‘Listen, you’re not going to get accolades playing in this position. You just have to do the dirty work, make sure the team wins and then all the glory goes to the strikers! Always.’
“When someone like that is talking, you pay attention. Claude continued by saying, ‘I have done this all my career. In Real Madrid I did it. Zinedine Zidane and the others got all the credit, I never got any.’ Straight away I understood what I was getting myself into.”
While the old guard understood the assignment at the Allianz Arena on May 19 2012 having lost on penalties to Manchester United in 2008, it was a relatively new experience for Mikel Obi.
Admittedly, he was already on the books of the club when the west London side lost in Moscow, but he was only two years into his Blues career and was an unused substitute.
Having been the only player not called upon in 2008 to still be at the club four years later, Mikel was motivated for success against all the odds.
Roberto Di Matteo’s team were badly hit by suspensions and had to make do with the walking wounded pair of David Luiz and Gary Cahill in the final, both of whom had been doubts to face Bayern on their turf.
It was Mikel’s duty to offer the centre-backs protection from what was predicted to be an all-night onslaught.
As early as the fourth minute, though, the underdogs’ plan could have been undone. A missed interception from their anchorman meant Thomas Muller teed up Bastian Schweinsteiger for a shot from the edge of the area.
It took a desperate Cahill to throw his body in the way to prevent what could have been an early lead for FC Hollywood. That was one of Chelsea’s greatest pre-game fears.
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“If we can grab a goal in the early stages it is going to be good but we need to make sure we don’t concede early on,” Mikel asserted before the final.
That was arguably the only foot he put wrong for the entirety of the 120 minutes. Unwilling to be limited to a watchdog brief, the Blues’ deepest midfielder was beyond useful in possession, intermittently receiving the ball facing his goal and under pressure from the German giants.
His press resistance saw him deceive Tony Kroos with a feint in the seventh minute before releasing Jose Bosingwa on the right flank with acres of room to run into. Ten minutes before the interlude, Mikel, yet again, refused to panic under pressure from the Germany midfielder.
With no team-mate near the Chelsea man who was facing his goal, Kroos smelled blood and harried the Nigerian. However, with a sharp turn, Mikel was away from his marker and played a forward pass to Juan Mata.
The aforementioned situations saw both moves end with the Premier League side finding themselves in promising positions only to be thwarted by Philipp Lahm on both occasions.
When Mikel had the ball, he was a calming influence and mostly played it forward, seeking anyone in little pockets of space or showing his passing range by pinging accurate balls into the forwards.
Out of possession, the languid midfield man was not tasked with cancelling out any opponent’s threat in particular. Rather, he moved laterally between the lines depending on the situation to put out fires.
Importantly, he had to protect a patched up centre-back pairing.
“The talent Bayern had was unbelievable,” Mikel admitted years later. “We didn’t play man-to-man.
“My role that day was to sit back a bit more to protect David Luiz and Gary Cahill. They were both touch-and-go to make the kick-off because of hamstring injuries. They almost didn’t make it.”
Mikel was effectively Chelsea’s first attacking midfielder and the Blues’ first defender at the Allianz Arena.
When he was not facilitating play, smartly patrolling between the lines or coming out on top in his one-v-one tussles, the Nigerian was heading dangerous crosses out of harm’s way, making important interceptions or blocking potentially threatening shots from distance.
⏪ John Obi Mikel's key role in Chelsea's 2012 final victory 🔝
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 26, 2021
Drogba bought Di Matteo’s men an extra half hour after a bullet header with two minutes left on the clock cancelled out Thomas Muller’s 83rd-minute opener. Chelsea, somehow, were still alive.
If their belief that the stars were aligning surged after the clutch Ivorian showed his decisive quality, then Arjen Robben’s botched penalty five minutes into extra time fed their growing assuredness.
Mikel had held onto the ball for an extended period after Drogba clumsily fouled Franck Ribery, unwilling to let go in an attempt to unnerve Robben. While observers noticed an exchange of words, the Nigerian only revealed what was said years later.
“I went straight to Robben and I said: ‘Watch, I’m telling you, you’re going to miss it.’ He wasn’t looking at me,” the erstwhile Super Eagles captain told the Guardian in 2020.
“I said to him: ‘You’re going to miss it. Watch and see. You’re going to miss it.’ He didn’t say anything to me. He hit it and he missed. I was like: ‘Wow. I guessed right.'”
Lahm, perhaps self-righteously, censured the ex-Chelsea man.
“I wouldn’t take that sort of intimidation. If a player says ‘You’re going to miss’ it is below the belt; it contradicts the values of fair play,” the former Bayern captain told the Guardian.
Mikel, though, feels that was the turning point in Bavaria.
“We could see they were getting tired and frustrated. We knew it was within our reach, we could do it. We could feel it,” he told the Athletic last year. “We were growing in confidence. Cech saving Robben’s penalty gave us another injection of belief.”
Despite the self-belief coursing through his veins at the time, Mikel could not volunteer to be one of the first five penalty takers. He could not bear to watch at times as his brave team-mates stepped up from 12 yards against a hostile crowd.
🗣️ "If anyone tells you your dreams are too big, just say thank you and work harder and smarter to turn them into reality."
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 21, 2021
Be that as it may, it does not diminish the Nigerian’s excellence for two hours of football as Chelsea claimed their Holy Grail at the expense of a really good Bayern outfit.
“I had lots of good games, but given what was at stake, that is my best game for Chelsea,” he said. “We were playing on their home ground, in their stadium. It added to the pressure.
“I pretty much did everything that day, defensively and going forward. It’s a game I’m proud of. What makes it more special is I saved my best performance for Chelsea’s biggest ever game. Not bad, eh?”
That 2012 success has gone down as the Didier Drogba final owing to his late equaliser and winning penalty, whereas another majority argues that it was Petr Cech’s final due to the game-saving saves. But maybe it was truly the Mikel John Obi final.