MICHAEL ESSIEN – THE HEARTBEAT OF CHELSEA

By Rupert Cane
Mar 30th, 2009

The man who once had a trial at Manchester United has turned into one of Europe’s most revered midfielders at Chelsea and the good news is: he’s here to stay. In the summer of 2008 Michael Essien put pen to paper and signed a new five-year contract with the Blues, trying him to the club until at least 2013. After an understated start to his career at Stamford Bridge the ‘Bison’ has flourished into the heartbeat of Chelsea’s team, a box to box midfielder who can fill in across the back four and is equally capable in the tackle and in front of goal. Essien’s brilliance stems not only from his athleticism and power, which consistently help Chelsea win the midfield battle, but also his surging runs and creativity, a quality which is often overlooked when analyzing the Ghanaian’s strengths.

It is easy to forget, too, that Essien is only 26, having been born in December 1982. He spent his youth in the capital of Ghana, Accra and played for local team Liberty Professionals, whose alumni include Sulley Muntari and John Pantsil. Essien’s stock rose after some impressive performances in the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship which saw Ghana reach the semi finals before bowing out on penalties to eventual winners Brazil. A move to Europe beckoned for Essien and French club Bastia secured the 17 year old’s services for a nominal fee in July 2000.

Essien appeared sporadically in seasons 2000/01 and 2001/02 for Bastia but again impressed when representing his national side, this time at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championships. Club form ensued as he helped guide Bastia to an Intertoto Cup place in his final season at the club, netting 6 goals in 29 appearances. In all he made 65 appearances and scored 11 goals for the Corsican outfit, and it became inevitable that France’s bigger boys would come knocking for his signature.

Confusion reigned with regards to his acquisition, much like it would 2 years later when he finally joined Chelsea. The BBC confirmed he had joined PSG for a fee of $6 million as a replacement for the outgoing Ronaldinho on the 30th June 2003. However, 3 days later, he signed for Lyon in an $8 million deal having rejected PSG’s contract offer and having been enticed by the prospect of Champions League football.

Essien lasted only two seasons at the omnipotent champions of France where he instantly secured a first-team berth as the holding midfielder, allowing the more creative Juninho and Florent Malouda (!) to blossom. Essien’s status as one of Europe’s rising stars was now complete and like most of Lyon’s superstars he soon looked abroad to the headier heights of the Premier League.

What followed in the summer of 2005 was probably the most drawn out transfer in Chelsea’s history. Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas decided to turn the transfer saga into a circus in an attempt to inflate Essien’s price. First, he said there was no way Essien would leave. However, after Essien himself demanded to go Aulas set about telling the press how almost every major European club were interested in him. Daily updates on which club seemed the most likely were forthcoming. Newly-crowned champions Chelsea had a total of five bids rejected; the first a somewhat optimistic £10 million offer. In the midst of the ongoing saga Aulas commented “Forty-five million euros (£31m). That’s the figure. We’ll sell Michael for the price of Steven Gerrard. They’re going to pay up or my name’s not Aulas.” Intriguingly Chelsea only came in for Essien after they failed to acquire Liverpool’s Gerrard – I think all Chelsea fans will look back now and be thoroughly relieved at the way it turned out. An attempt to include Tiago in the package was also turned down (although the Portuguese midfielder did join Lyon soon after) before a club record fee (at the time) was agreed: £24.4 million.

Essien joined a team that had just won the league and the league cup, and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Some fans asked why we needed to spend so much money on a new midfielder when our midfield and our squad in general appeared complete. Manager Jose Mourinho rubbished this view, saying that, “I wanted him because I was looking for a player to finish what is a very strong squad in every position. We believe he is the best we can get for his position and he can play anywhere in midfield”, adding, “He’s young, has a lot of ambition and he has the profile of the player we want.”

Essien debuted for his new side against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, coming on for Eidur Gudjohnsen. He started his first game three days later against West Brom at the Bridge, and appeared in 34 more league games as Chelsea cantered to the title. However Essien didn’t truly stamp his authority in his first season with the Blues, taking some time to adapt to the pacy Premiership. He did, though, notoriously stamp his authority on Liverpool’s Dietmar Hamann in the Champions League, dangerously lunging into the player. After Sky Sports and other media outlets continued to play and replay the incident UEFA got involved and banned him for 2 games, meaning he missed the two games against Barcelona which saw Chelsea knocked out in the Second Round. Essien scored two goals in his first season, against Tottenham and Everton respectively.

At the 2006 World Cup Essien was the fulcrum of the Ghana team that reached the second round – he was again extremely unfortunate to be suspended for their 3-0 defeat to Brazil. But Essien, like fellow African Didier Drogba, really shone at the finals and gave Chelsea fans renewed hope that he could thrive at Stamford Bridge.

And thrive he did. By the end of the 2006/07 Essien won the Chelsea Player of the Year and the Chelsea Goal of the Season, for his late wonder strike against Arsenal. He contributed all over the pitch, producing an imperious performance in the FA Cup Final at centre back alongside John Terry. From right back he scored in the last minute in the second leg of the Champions League Quarter Final in Valencia to ensure Chelsea’s dramatic process. He was the first (and so far the only) Chelsea player to score at Arsenal’s new ground, the Emirates. At times he kept an injury-plagued squad bound together with his versatility key to Chelsea’s success that season.

Essien picked up where he left off the following season with the winning goal in the opening game of the season against Birmingham City. The 2007/08 represented Essien’s most successful season in front of goal for Chelsea, netting 6 league goals for the Blues. He also guided Ghana to the semi finals of the African Nations Cup from a deep-lying playmaker role. Essien played the full 120 minutes of the Champions League Final in Moscow (at right-back), but didn’t take a penalty in the shootout, saying his mother had had a heart attack when he missed one for Lyon in the Champions League.

The current season looked like it had ended before it had even begun for Essien when he damaged cruciate ligaments playing for Ghana in early September. However, it is testament to his hard work ethic that he recovered so quickly, in time to mark his first start with a crucial away goal in Turin against Juventus and the winner against Manchester City the following weekend.

Chelsea’s season has flattered to deceive so far and there is no doubt that Essien’s absence has had a negative impact on the team. Now, though, with the stocky midfielder fit and well here’s hoping he can help lead the team once more and stay at Chelsea for years to come. There’s a strong chance we will never see another player quite like the brilliant Michael Essien in Chelsea blue.

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