On the right track

Michael Essien, who signed a five-year deal at Stamford Bridge, took time to adjust to the pace of the EPL but has ultimately proved a commanding and dynamic performer, writes Andy Hampson.

Michael Essien is an influential and tough-tackling midfielder who played a key role in Chelsea’s Barclays English Premier League title success of 2006 after a remarkable — and protracted — GBP24.4 million move from French champion Lyon.

Essien hails from the Ghanaian capital Accra and began his footballing career with local club Liberty Professionals. His talent was obvious and he tasted early success at representative level as a member of the Ghana Under-17 side that won the African Championship and came third in the World Championship in 1999.

European scouts took notice and he moved to French club Bastia in 2001. Although he was often utilised in a number of defensive roles rather than his preferred central midfield position, his progress continued as he reached the French Cup final in his first season.

He broke into the full national team after being selected for the 2002 African Nations Cup and he then helped Bastia qualify for the UEFA Cup in 2002-03.

Now flourishing in midfield, a move to a bigger club was becoming likely and Lyon secured his services by paying GBP5.2 million despite reported interest from Liverpool and Everton.

It proved a hugely successful move as Lyon won the French title in 2004 and 2005 and enjoyed a run to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. Essien was by now being hailed as one of the best midfielders in the world and Lyon was determined to get full value as billionaire-backed Chelsea came calling.

Chelsea, fresh from winning the Premier League, was keen to strengthen further and fought long and hard for Essien as the Lyon management dug its heels in. It eventually got its man after a wrangle that lasted most of the summer, although he did not come cheap.

Essien, who signed a five-year deal at Stamford Bridge, took time to adjust to the pace of the EPL but has ultimately proved a commanding and dynamic performer.

He helped his team win the Premier League in his first season and the FA Cup and Carling Cup in 2007. He is the club’s current player of the year.

With Essien at its heart, a superb Ghana side reached the World Cup finals for the first time in 2006. The Chelsea man impressed further in Germany but picked up two yellow cards in the group stages and missed the knockout-round defeat by Brazil. He was voted player of the tournament at this year’s African Nations Cup after helping host Ghana to third place.

Essien added great strength to the Chelsea midfield but his first season at the club was overshadowed by two controversial tackles, both of which warranted — but did not earn — red cards. The worst was a horrific lunge on Liverpool’s Dietmar Hamann in a UEFA Champions League group match which left the German fearing he had broken his leg.

“It was the worst tackle I’ve ever been on the receiving end of,” said Hamann, who was further angered by the fact that Essien did not immediately apologise. Hamann was eventually able to get up and escaped with only a gash below the knee. The referee missed the tackle but UEFA later imposed a two-match ban.

The incident followed another on the then Bolton defender Tal Ben Haim — now a team-mate — in a Premier League match. Referee Rob Styles punished it with a yellow card but said after reviewing the incident on TV it should have been red.

Essien is currently believed to be dating popular Ghanaian actress Nadia Buari, who has starred in a number of the country’s hit movies of recent years. News of their relationship is largely confined to gossip columns in their homeland but it has been a recurring theme over the past three years. If they were ever to marry, it would undoubtedly be huge celebrity news in the African country.

Like many Premier League footballers, Essien owns a Range Rover Sport 4.4 V8 HSE, the top models of this luxury 4x4 — although Essien probably has no intention of taking his vehicle off-road — cost around GBP54,500 and have a top speed of 130mph.

Factfile Name: Michael Essien Position: Midfielder Club: Chelsea DOB: 03/12/1982 Ghana caps: 38 Ghana goals: 8 Ghana debut: v Morocco, January 2002 Moment to remember

Essien’s most famous Chelsea goal sent the team through to the UEFA Champions League semifinals in dramatic circumstances last season. With 90 minutes up in Spain in the second-leg of the tie against Valencia, and extra-time beckoning, Essien burst through to smash in a stunning winner. It capped a brilliant performance on his return from a six-game absence.

Moment to forget

The biter was bitten in January 2006 when just weeks after Essien’s horror tackle on Hamann, Essien was carried off on a stretcher after being on the receiving end of a strong challenge from West Ham’s Nigel Reo-Coker. He suffered an ankle injury and did not play again for a month.

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