Michael Essien may find a return to form far more difficult than his return to fitness

Michael Essien was once described as: “the prototype modern player, football’s equivalent of Jonah Lomu.” Unfortunately, the similarities with the New Zealand rugby phenomenon do not end there. A force of nature, Lomu’s body failed him, as his talent burned brightly and all too briefly. Essien has recently returned from a third serious knee injury, but whether or not ‘the Bison’ can recapture his imposing prime remains to be seen.

A £24m signing in 2005, Essien was recruited to add more balance, energy and drive to the Chelsea midfield, attributes that are just as pressing today as they were back then. With Frank Lampard on the wane, John Obi Mikel failing to fulfil his potential and Oriol Romeu rich in potential but still acclimatising to English football, a fit and firing Essien could revitalise Chelsea’s fortunes, at both ends of the pitch.

After such lengthy absences, it is easy to forget just how formidable Essien had become, during stints at Bastia, Lyon and during his time in West London. His lung-busting, box-to-box displays saw him nominated for FIFA’s World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or for three consecutive years between 2005 and 2007. He also claims that he never feels exhausted after games, consuming so little energy that he fights the urge to go for a post-match run.

Essien’s injury woe began in September 2008, when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament playing for Ghana in a World Cup qualifier, which ruled him out until the following March. He tore a hamstring before suffering a medial ligament injury at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, which cost him the rest of that domestic season and the subsequent World Cup. As a result, Essien withdrew from international football indefinitely to enable a full recovery and retain his place in the Chelsea side.

He returned to the international fold in the summer before rupturing his cruciate ligaments once again during pre-season, ahead of the current campaign. It cost him a place in Ghana’s squad for the Africa Cup of Nations currently taking place in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, returning to first team action last month by making a substitute appearance in a 1-0 win against Sunderland. Andre Villas-Boas, who had yet to field Essien, hailed his return post-match. “To see a player that makes the switch so quick from a reserve-team game to full Premier League intensity in such a short time, it’s amazing,” revealed Villas-Boas.

Having featured in three games against newly promoted opposition, a win at QPR plus draws against Norwich and Swansea, he made his first start of the season at the weekend, as Chelsea let a three goal lead slip in their 3-3 draw with Manchester United. Lining up alongside Florent Malouda and Raul Meireles, Essien showed glimpses of his ability and influence, but looked rusty and tired as United grew in confidence.

Essien will hope his recovery is not yet another false dawn, a return to first team action has been long and arduous and his quest to recapture his finest form may prove every bit as drawn out and difficult, if not ultimately elusive. If he is able to achieve this feat and return to the peak of his powers, his world-class talent will enrich both Chelsea and the Premier League once again.

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