Dimeji Lawal says he is amazed by some of the criticism Nigeria captain Mikel Obi has faced as Chelsea manager Antonio Conte continues to overlook him.
Mikel, who is Chelsea’s second longest serving player after John Terry, has not featured for the Premier League giants since the beginning of the season.
The 29-year-old midfielder guided the national Under-23 team to a memorable bronze at the Rio Olympic Games in August 20 – and returned the following month to lead the Super Eagles to a 1-0 victory over Tanzania in a Gabon 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Uyo.
Mikel starred in the Eagles’ 2-1 defeat of Zambia’s Chipolopolo in their opening Russia 2018 World Cup Group B qualifier at Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola on October 9.
Despite the 2012 UEFA Champions League winner’s impressive performance against Zambia, Italian manager Conte still kept him out the lineup for Saturday’s match against Leicester City, which the Blues won 3-0. The development has seen Mikel receiving more criticism back home.
And former Nigeria winger Dimeji says football fans and pundits in Nigeria should sympathise with the player rather than criticising him.
The Saudi ’89 FIFA Under-20 World Cup silver medallist claims Mikel is paying the price for abandoning Chelsea’s preseason for the Olympics.
According to the FIFA-licensed players’ agent, Conte is not happy that the South Africa 2013 Africa Cup of Nations winner opted to represent Nigeria at Rio 2016.
The Olympics is not on the FIFA international calendar so clubs are not required to release players for the tournament – and many big European clubs, including Chelsea, did everything to to prevent their star players going to the Games.
Mikel had admitted opting to miss the preseason was a tough choice, especially as former Italy coach Conte was new to the London side.
“It is difficult to leave Chelsea at this time,” Mikel told the Evening Standard. “But I explained to the club why I wanted to go and I thank them for their understanding and allowing me to be a part of this.”
And following the arrival of Frenchman N’Golo Kante from Premier League champions Leicester City, some the British media had predicted that Mikel had potentially sacrificed his place in the team after opting to represent his country at Rio 2016.
Former Belgium-based attacker Dimeji saluted Mikel for his commitment to the national team, saying he deserved some respect for his contribution to the game.
“Playing at the Olympics affected Mikel at Chelsea,” the former Spain-based player said on Sunday.
“I remember that Conte was always praising Mikel until he decided to play at the Olympics.
“I’m not surprised that Conte has decided not to feature him in any of his games – he probably feels let down by the player.”
Dimeji added, “It’s unfortunate that some Nigerians are criticising him. Some are saying he should be dropped from the Eagles because he’s not playing for his club.
“They are wrong. Mikel played a key role in the victory over Zambia. In the Eagles, every move begins with him.
“The young players, particularly (Alex) Iwobi and (Kelechi) Iheanacho look up to him. He deserves respect.”