Last night at Wembley, taking the place in his national side that he should have occupied during the momentous weeks of last summer, Arsenal's 19-year-old centre-forward demonstrated that he is capable of leaving his affectations on the training pitch. His power and incisiveness gave the world champions victory over Howard Wilkinson's England, thanks to two well-worked goals that would have become a hat-trick had a linesman's understandable mistake not deprived him of the reward for a shot that crossed the line but bounced back into play. And still people complain that he misses too many chances.
Anelka's considerable feat, on the pitch where he scored for his club in last season's FA Cup Final, took the wind out of England, who had given as much punishment as they received for the first 45 minutes but then fell victim to a simple tactical switch imposed at half-time by the French coach, Roger Lemerre. And after a positive start, England's performance did not leave much in the way of encouragement for their Euro 2000 qualifying campaign.
This was a generous and whole-hearted match which settled straight away into an exhilarating contrast of rhythms, in which the normal roles of home and away teams were, if not reversed, then at least radically modified. England's directness down the channels, built on the whippet speed of Michael Owen and the raking passes of David Beckham, virtually represented a counter-attacking strategy, and formed the clearest possible contrast with the subtly angled approach work so patiently orchestrated by Zinedine Zidane for the French.
Tony Adams' failure to glance home Beckham's second-minute free-kick, and Fabien Barthez's save with his knee from Owen six minutes later, sandwiched a wonderful French attack in which Didier Deschamps, prompted by Zidane, sent a final ball just too wide for Anelka, who was forced to turn the ball back and cross. Already it looked like we might have something more than a well mannered friendly fixture on our hands.
Both sides were defending with a flat back four, but England, with Owen and Alan Shearer pushing up on Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly, caused more problems in the opening exchanges than the French attack, in which Anelka, at the spearpoint, was flanked by Robert Pires and Youri Djorkaeff, neither of them close enough to take advantage of flicks or knockdowns. At this stage, as in the World Cup, the French forwards seemed to be providing nothing more than a smokescreen, the team's goals appearing more likely to come from midfield, and in particular from the verve and timing of Emmanuel Petit's late runs into the penalty area.
The class of the French defence was evident when Shearer's strength forced an error, only for Blanc to play an elegant square clearance to Lizarazu with Owen at his heels. England were trying to keep the game flowing forward at high pace, at some cost to their coherence. When Shearer, Jamie Redknapp and Darren Anderton tried a complex first-time inter-passing movement, it was executed with enough speed to beat the flat defence but lacked sufficient precision to take the Tottenham man into the danger area. By contrast, France's mature ability to vary the tempo of their game was evident in the dynamism of Bixente Lizarazu, moving up the field from left back to give Lee Dixon a difficult time, and the neat skills of Pires, whose crosses from the right wing posed problems for Graeme Le Saux.
But Pires was absent from the restart, replaced by Christophe Dugarry, who took up a position on the left. Blanc, too, had been withdrawn, allowing Djorkaeff to move into the space behind Anelka. Practically invisible in the first half, Djorkaeff began to make an impression on the game, possibly thinking of the presence in the stands of his father, Jean, who appeared at left-back for France at Wembley in the losing teams of 1966 and 1969. Perhaps anxious to recover his father's lost honour, Youri tricked the English defence 10 minutes into the second half by flipping the ball over his own head and feeding Anelka, who was momentarily in the clear but wasted time bringing the ball under control.
Among Anelka's gifts is the ability to remain undismayed by his own failures. Pushing up against the English back line to put his club-mates' famed mastery of the offside trap to the test, he was desperately unlucky when his 64th-minute drive beat Nigel Martyn, rebounded off the underside of the bar and appeared to land a foot or so behind the line, only to bounce out.
But within the next 12 minutes his coolness paid off twice as he infiltrated the English defence to put the finishing touch to Zidane's inspired first- time pass and then slid between Adams and Le Saux to slot home Dugarry's cross. At which point, with a quarter of an hour left, the game was up and, on their home field, England bowed the knee to the undisputed champions of the world.