John Obi Mikel: Chelsea Midfielder Is Leading Nigeria Resurgence at AFCON 2013

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2013

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 29,  Biyadiglign Elyas of Ethiopia and John Obi Mikel of Nigeria during the 2013 African Cup of Nations match between Ethiopia and Nigeria at Royal Bafokeng Stadium on January 29, 2013 in Rustenburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Gallo Images/Getty Images

Nigeria will get as deep into the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations as John Obi Mikel can take them.

With a 2-0 victory over Ethiopia on Thursday, the Super Eagles finished second in Group C and earned themselves a spot in the knockout stage. They'll get the Cote d'Ivoire this Sunday in the quarterfinals.

It's positive momentum for a country that has failed to garner much in recent years. There was once a time when Nigeria was the among the best countries Africa had to offer and one that could stand up to some of the best the world have to offer.

The Super Eagles made it to the Round of 16 at both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. Nigeria have subsequently taken part in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups but failed to win a single match.

Under Stephen Keshi, this has been a very different Nigeria side. Gone are the kinds of egos and dressing room strife that have caused problems for so many African sides when it comes to international tournaments.

He let the players know exactly who was in charge and who selected the starting XI.

While Keshi has been the brains behind Nigeria's advancement to the knockout stage; Mikel has been the engine on the pitch.

Mikel is one of the star men for the Super Eagles. While Victor Moses' goals get the headlines, it's been Mikel's work in midfield that has been the biggest factor.

His evolution over the years with Chelsea has been very interesting to watch: Mikel came to Stamford Bridge as more of an attacking midfielder, and he then turned into more of a defensive midfielder/ball-winner sitting in front of the back four.

It's much the same transition Lucas Leiva has made at Liverpool.

While having talented overall squads, African countries often find themselves in need of the kind of talisman who can provide that extra spark. Samuel Eto'o for Cameroon, Emmanuel Adebayor for Togo and Didier Drogba for Cote d'Ivoire are some of the recent examples.

Mikel has been that kind of player for the Super Eagles. Nigeria haven't been hitting on all cylinders, but they have had enough to get through this far. They need somebody like Mikel to step up and take on the pressure.

He's far from the most experienced player on the team. At 25 years old, though, he can provide the kind of leader Nigeria need.

That doesn't even include what he's actually done on the pitch so far. Mikel's been able to spread passes across the pitch and helped to marshal a defense that has surrendered only two goals in the knockout stage.

If Nigeria are to take home their first Africa Cup of Nations crown since 1994, Mikel will have to be the catalyst.