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Soccer: Mikel is Chelsea's unsung hero, says Di Matteo

LONDON (Reuters) - John Obi Mikel's value to Chelsea often goes unrecognized by the media and by fans of the European champions but manager Roberto Di Matteo says the Nigeria midfielder is one of the club's unsung heroes.

Mikel occupies the anchor role just in front of the defense and gets only rare chances to go for glory further forwards, evidenced by the fact he is still waiting to bag his first goal in 135 Premier League appearances for the Londoners.

The 25-year-old scored a rare goal at the weekend when he converted a penalty in Nigeria's 6-1 rout of Liberia as his side qualified for the African Nations Cup finals.

"Over the years he has been almost ever-present," Di Matteo told the club's website (www.chelseafc.com) on Monday. "He was very important at the back end of last season and this season he has started in good form.

"We all make mistakes in games and I don't think he gets the credit for the work he does for the team."

Former Italy midfielder Di Matteo often performed the same task as Mikel during his playing days at Chelsea and has a strong empathy with the Nigerian.

Earlier this month, Di Matteo said: "I don't know why Mikel is underrated by the media or the fans. He is very rated by us in the group and it's a position where you're a bit of an unsung hero.

"You do the dirty work which is not recognized all the time because the goalscorers and more creative players get the recognition. But he is very important for our team."

Chelsea, who have a four-point lead at the top of the Premier League, have a difficult series of fixtures coming up.

They visit London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, and former manager Andre Villas-Boas, on Saturday before travelling to Ukraine to meet Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League next week.

Chelsea then have back-to-back home games against Manchester United in the Premier League and League Cup.

(Writing by Tony Jimenez; editing by Mark Meadows)

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