Chelsea may never get a better chance of winning the Premier League and FA Cup double but it has not come at a good moment for Nicolas Anelka.
The goals have dried up for last season's Golden Boot winner; he has not scored since 30 January – 10 weeks and 12 games since he wheeled away, hands crossed in the familiar butterfly goal celebration. A Wembley end to the drought today would be timely indeed for club and player.
His goalscoring touch has deserted him at a vital stage of the season. He was outstanding in January, with six goals in six games to ensure the absence of Didier Drogba, who was at the Africa Cup of Nations, was barely noticed. But since Drogba's return Anelka has gone into his shell, without a single goal following the Ivorian's reappearance in Chelsea colours.
The Frenchman accepts the loss of form with admirable stoicism and denies any rivalry with his strike partner. "Sometimes you have good moments, sometimes you have bad moments," he says. "There is no rivalry with Didier. He is a good friend. Today he is one of the top scorers in the Premier League and if I have a chance to give him the ball to finish top scorer I will give him the ball because he deserves it."
Anelka's equanimity has served him well throughout his unpredictable career, a career that has taken him to a variety of clubs but has not brought with it the trophies that seemed so certain a decade ago when he had looked destined to become the first footballing superstar of the new millennium. It never quite turned out like that.
He shakes hands firmly and smiles when we meet at Chelsea's training ground. In the flesh he is a strikingly big man. Not just his height but his physique. His shoulders are immense under his shirt and the size of his biceps slightly disconcerting. More hulk than sulk.
And there is another surprise in store; he is friendly. No sign of the sulk at all. "Call me Nic," he says, and his conversation continues to be peppered with smiles and laughs.
Back in 2000 there seemed plenty for Anelka to smile about. The 21st-century boy made the game simple. He possessed devastating pace, rarely lost control of the ball, and seldom squandered an opportunity to score. The footballing world waited for the inevitable.
He scored at Wembley in the 1998 FA Cup final against Newcastle to help Arsenal to the Premier League and FA Cup double in Arsène Wenger's first full season in charge. Two years later Anelka played a key role in the Real Madrid side of 2000 that won the Champions League. Since then, however, the titles have dried up, much like his goals in the past two months.
With a reputation for being arrogant and moody, Anelka took his scoring boots to Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool on loan, Manchester City (before the sheikhs took over), Fenerbahce and Bolton Wanderers before he finally returned to the big stage with a move to Chelsea in January 2008. It has been a decade of what-might-have-been for Anelka. "I won with Fenerbahce as well," he says in mitigation when the subject is brought up. He also won the FA Cup with Chelsea last season. But looking back, does he think he has made the most of his prodigious talent?
Anelka, who celebrated his 31st birthday last month, strokes his freshly shaven scalp and answers: "I am happy with what I did in my career even if it wasn't always the biggest clubs. I enjoyed my time in Bolton. And no regrets in Spain, in Turkey, Paris, no regrets, because it's part of life.
"Sometimes you are happy, sometimes you are not but in general I am quite happy with what I did since I have been playing football. Maybe some people will be shocked. But all the experiences I have had with these clubs have been good for me.
"You know, when you see something else and then you come back to a big club like Chelsea, of course you want more because you know what you lost."
Perhaps it all came a bit too quickly for young Anelka. A product of the Clairefontaine national football academy south of Paris, he played 10 games for PSG before being snapped up at the age of 17 by Arsenal for £500,000. His arrival in the first team hurried the departure of an aging Ian Wright, and he was voted the PFA Young Player of the Year 12 months after winning the double.
But the lure of the millions on offer at the top European clubs proved to be too tempting and he engineered a move to Real Madrid for £22.3m in 1999. His friend Thierry Henry was bought from Juventus to fill the void at Arsenal, and while Henry flourished at Highbury, Anelka struggled in Madrid, although he did win the Champions League a year later.
His subsequent journey around some of the less glamorous footballing outposts, coupled with a conversion to Islam in his mid-20s, has given him a different perspective on the game. It is a journey that has taken Anelka to the brink of another potential double, with Chelsea playing Aston Villa in today's FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. If only he could start scoring again.
"The most important thing is Chelsea, not me. So if Chelsea win I'm happy," Anelka says. "If I have the chance to score its even better, but as long as we are winning and we win the league and the cup, I am happy."
The talk has to be about football. He politely refuses to discuss matters such as his conversion to Islam six years ago. So we stick to football, which makes a change at Chelsea after several waves of controversy this season.
The John Terry scandal, when the captain was alleged to have cheated on his wife with Wayne Bridge's ex-fiancée, followed the club's transfer ban, which was later lifted, and preceded the breakdown of Ashley Cole's marriage. Anelka admits the huge interest in Cole's life and Terry's behaviour, which led to the defender being stripped of the England captaincy, had a huge effect in the Chelsea dressing room.
"You don't want to think about it but at the same time you do," he says. "I know and the players know it was a difficult moment for John and Ashley, but we tried to stay focused, stay together. Even if we dropped points, we are still on top, so that means we have a good mentality. I think it has made us stronger as a team. What happened, we have to be stronger as a team and we have to be more focused on the game. Otherwise you lose everything."
Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti deserves credit for the undemonstrative way he has shepherded the club through their various self-inflicted crises this season, in his first year in charge. Anelka says the manager has "brought stability", adding: "He trusts you and you trust him."
By rights Chelsea should already have the title in the bag by now. They have beaten both the other serious title contenders, Manchester United and Arsenal, home and away, evidence enough that Chelsea are the best team in the country this season.
Yet the Blues are only two points ahead, as the advantage they have gained over their rivals in red has been frittered away in dropped points against less celebrated teams. The games they lost to Manchester City (twice), and to Everton, Wigan and Aston Villa, may yet come back to haunt them.
The slip-ups have made Chelsea determined to win their five remaining Premier League games to take the title decisively. Ancelotti's side can afford to draw one of their two away games, at Tottenham and Liverpool, and still win the league, but that is not part of their thinking.
"We want to win all of them," Anelka says. "It is psychological, because if you want to win and you are going away playing against Tottenham or Liverpool, and you think that maybe if we come back with a draw it is OK, no it is not. It is not good enough, because we don't know about United or Arsenal. We have to go there and think about winning."
After the FA Cup and Premier League, the greatest stage of all finally beckons for Anelka. He has won 64 caps for France, but incredibly has never played a match in a World Cup tournament. This summer he will put that right, although his comments on the subject are clipped and precise, suggesting he will not travel to South Africa full of confidence. "The way we played in qualification it was so-so. We have to put it right before the World Cup otherwise we will go out after the first three games," he says.
The chance of winning the double. His first ever World Cup. The opportunities are coming thick and fast for Anelka. After the topsy-turvy career he has had, he knows nothing can be taken for granted. But by the same token he recognises such moments may not come round again.
He may not be in the best of form, but he is determined to seize the moment, to make up for his lost years. "I have the chance to be with one of the biggest clubs in the world today," he says. "To win the league here would mean a lot. I won it with Arsenal and it was a long time ago and I want to win it again. All the new boys here who have not won the title, they want to do it. We have two more trophies to win and we want to win both of them. So now it's all about us. Going on the pitch and winning, and that's it."
Nicolas Anelka is supporting Chelsea's Search for an Asian Star programme, creating opportunities for greater Asian participation at all levels of the game. This year six players aged eight to 13 from Asian backgrounds will win a week at Chelsea's academy with trials taking place at Cobham during the May Bank Holiday.
For details visit chelseafc.com/asiansoccerstar
His other life
*Nicolas Anelka is one of the many muslim players in the Premier League, and one of the most high-profile, along with Samir Nasri, Nadir Belhadj and Kolo Touré. Unlike these others, he publicly converted to Islam, in 2004, taking the name Abdul-Salam Bilal. "The Muslim religion interests me," he has said. "When I'm in Trappes [the Parisian suburb where he grew up], I hang out with Muslims and we discuss it a lot. I listen to them to understand and learn, just like Roberto Baggio on Buddhism. It opens your mind, the subject fascinates me – just like astronomy."Reuse content