Football: Anelka anxieties haunt Wenger

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THE MISERY of moody Bleu Nicolas Anelka remains the one blot on Arsenal's landscape as Arsene Wenger sounds the bugle for the Gunners to continue their dogged and relentless Premiership title pursuit of Manchester United.

The Frenchman was unable to bathe in the warm glow of his team-mates' satisfaction after they lifted the gloom of last week's dramatic FA Cup semi-final exit against United with an emphatic 5-1 victory over Wimbledon. The new hero of post-World Cup France, a 20-year-old giant with the natural talent to become his country's No 1 striker for years to come, was dropped for last night's game at Highbury which lifted Arsenal to within a point of the leaders.

Anelka cut a lonely figure, unemployed and unheralded on the substitutes' bench after a personal nightmare in the semi-final replay six days earlier. Now Wenger faces critical decisions over the loss of form of the young man he snatched from Paris St-Germain two years ago and who, last season, splendidly accepted the challenge of replacing the club's record marksman, Ian Wright.

Anelka scored the FA Cup final goal against Newcastle which clinched the Double and brought him a fat new four-year contract last summer and since then has added 15 more this season. But he has not scored in seven games since the end of February and rumours of his unsettled life in London just will not go away.

Wenger was again obliged to deny suggestions that Anelka, who admits he cherishes the idea of one day playing in Spain, will be up for sale in the summer. "Nicolas is not going anywhere," Wenger insisted as he patiently explained why Anelka was dropped for the second time in four games. "People seem to forget that he is only 20 years old and has played so many games for us this season. There is intense pressure on all these games and it was clear to me he needed a rest but that doesn't mean he won't come back into the team."

But the introduction of Nigerian giant Nwankwo Kanu for his full Highbury debut in Anelka's place gives Wenger a dilemma for the five remaining games in which just one slip could destroy the dream of retaining the title.

Consistently brilliant Kanu scored one goal, played a vital part in two others - including his header, which went in off Ben Thatcher after striking a post - and, most significantly, proved he is fit for 90 minutes, the only doubt over him when he arrived at Arsenal two months ago.

The Gunners can go top of the Premiership for the first time this season if they win at in-form Middlesbrough on Saturday. But then United will have two games in hand, starting at Leeds on Sunday - a match which could be hugely influenced by their fortunes in Turin tomorrow night when Juventus bar the way to their dream of a treble.

"Personally, I hope Manchester United win in Italy and reach the final of the Champions' League," said the Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira. "That would be very important for football in England and it would give them something else to think about apart from the championship.

"We [Arsenal] all feel so much better than last week after that game against Wimbledon and we were very happy for Dennis Bergkamp that he scored after missing the penalty in the semi-final. But I also had to do my part because it was the stupid ball I lost against Manchester which helped Ryan Giggs to score their winning goal. I feel now we can keep the pressure on Manchester United right to the end."

Wenger accepts the reality that United still have to slip twice in their remaining six games to give Arsenal any real opening. United's massive goal-difference of plus-40 is worth virtually an extra point, even though the Gunners boosted their own mark to 34 on Monday night.

But the England coach, Kevin Keegan, could have a defining influence on the title race with the squad he picks on Thursday for the friendly international in Hungary next week. He has indicated he will not call upon any of the players from the Premiership's top three clubs even though such diplomacy would not impress some other top-flight managers.

Indeed many believe the Budapest game serves no real purpose and runs an unnecessary extra risk of injuries to key players. But whatever Keegan's deliberations, Wenger also has to contemplate Bergkamp and Marc Overmars being called up by the Netherlands for their friendly at home to Morocco next Wednesday - a game in which United's powerful defender Jaap Stam could also figure.

Bergkamp has not trained since the semi-final in which, although he would never suggest it, a groin strain may have contributed to the tame penalty shot which left him in such despair until Monday night when he was brought off to a standing ovation 20 minutes from the end.

Overmars, too, is only just coming back to full power after an ankle injury and blistered feet sustained in the Netherlands' friendly against Argentina last month but the Euro 2000 hosts are unlikely to let Wenger withdraw either of his players from the Morocco game without making their own fitness assessments.