Another dynamic display from midfield player Michael Essien helped Olympique Lyonnais seal a 4-2 win against Fenerbahçe SK last week and qualify from UEFA Champions League Group D with two matches to spare.
The 21-year-old has been formidable this season. Signed from SC Bastia in 2003, Essien spent much of last season filling in on the right flank and while his performances there were steady, they have improved dramatically since he returned to the centre.
Against the Turkish champions he was quickly into the thick of the action and one crunching tackle on Alex sent a shuddering message to his Brazilian opponent. When Fenerbahçe opened the scoring through Selçuk Sahin, it was the Ghanaian who steadied Lyon's nerves by levelling matters with a sweeping volley, his second Champions League goal after scoring at AC Sparta Praha.
Essien's display epitomised the spirit and determination that has been at the heart of Lyon's success this season, as they sealed victory with a two added-time goals. Their third came after Juninho Pernambucano's free-kick went through a crowd of players - flicking the head of Nilmar, or Essien, or maybe even both, on its way into the net.
Juninho, who has enjoyed more freedom this season with Essien and Mahamadou Diarra anchoring the midfield, told uefa.com: "I honestly don't know who scored [the third goal]. It doesn't matter if it was me, Nilmar or Essien, although it would be nice if Michael claimed it because he was fantastic again tonight."
Juninho is not the only one who appreciates Essien's presence. Defender Eric Abidal has nicknamed his team-mate 'the Bison' because of his physical qualities, saying: "He's like a human wall." Sidney Govou, meanwhile, described him as "the most physically commanding player I have ever come across". He added: "When there is a 50-50 challenge in training people often pull out when they see Michael is the player they're up against."
Yet Essien, who grew up playing football on the streets of Accra, has more to his game than just tackling. He is often seen launching counterattacks or surging into the opposition penalty area to get into a scoring position. He admits, though, that it is the physical side of the game he enjoys the most. "I gain as much satisfaction from making a winning tackle or helping a team-mate who is in trouble as I do from scoring a goal," Essien said.
He added: "When I was young I used to play with older boys and every time I got kicked I'd start crying and they'd shout 'stand up for yourself'." Those early experiences have helped mould one of the most combative players in France. "
I have never come up against someone who has put me on the ground after a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge," he said. "I'm always ready for contact and I'm never frightened to go in."
Lyon coach Paul Le Guen had to fight hard to sign Essien for €7.8m just over a year ago, with Everton FC, Liverpool FC and Paris Saint-Germain FC also keen. But he is now grateful he made the effort, saying: "I've rarely seen a player like him. The amount of work his does in a game is extraordinary."
Meanwhile, director of sport Bernard Lacombe said: "If he had the technique as well he'd be better than Maradona. He already reminds me of the Brazilian player Junior." If Essien continues to progress at such an astounding rate, the favourable comparisons are likely to keep flooding in.
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