The world's most expensive footballer will return to the scene of one of his rare failures this week determined to prove to Merseyside that Gérard Houllier was wrong to discard him six years ago.
Having missed Bolton's two Carling Cup ties this season, Nicolas Anelka is eligible to play for Chelsea at Everton in Wednesday's semi-final, second-leg, for which the London side hold a fortunate 2-1 lead. He will also know by then whether another of his numerous former clubs, Arsenal, await the winners in the Wembley final. But whereas he holds Arsène Wenger's club in great respect and would happily have rejoined them, his feelings for Liverpool are sour.
After two periods with Paris Saint-Germain and contrasting spells at Arsenal (good) and Real Madrid (bad), Anelka was taken to Anfield on loan for the second half of the 2001-2 season. Too often, he found himself behind Michael Owen and Emile Heskey in the pecking order, and finishing with five goals in 22 appearances – many of them as a substitute – was insufficient to keep Houllier to what the player insists was a firm promise to make the transfer permanent. "Gérard Houllier said, 'I promise you will sign', then said he didn't want to, so it was very, very hard for me. I was surprised by that and disappointed because I thought what I did on the pitch was good enough to sign. I have a lot of regrets about Liverpool because I really wanted to sign for them and I never understood why I didn't."
Nor did anyone else, although the influence of his brothers, who doubled as agents, was believed in some quarters to be a factor. Steven Gerrard has admitted to being "gobsmacked" by Houllier's decision, all the more so when he realised what a feeble replacement El-Hadji Diouf was. Furthermore, Gerrard, Owen, Heskey and other Liverpool players at the time have all gone on record as saying how pleasantly surprised they were by Anelka's attitude, arriving as he did with a reputation as "Le Sulk". Owen was typical: "Nicolas was quiet, but at no time did he give us problems."
That ties in with the player's own estimation of his much maligned character and a reputation that he believes has in the past cost him moves to bigger clubs: "It's held me back because every time I wanted to go to a big club they were saying the same. So it was hard for me because I'm not [like that]. I'm shy, I don't like to speak too much and just want to play football. Ask a player I played with in England and they won't say a bad word about me."
Arsenal supporters had reason to feel hard done by when he upped and left them a year after winning the Double in 1998, the brother-agents apparently forcing through a lucrative move to Real Madrid. Yet Arsenal made so much profit on the £22.3m move that it virtually paid for their state-of-the-art training ground, and Wenger was about to produce a rabbit called Thierry Henry from his magic hat.
Anelka does admit that going on strike in Spain was not the best idea: "In Madrid it was very difficult because of the situation with some of the players there. I came to the point where I wanted to speak with people inside the club who didn't want to speak to me so I said I wouldn't train. Then there was big trouble. If I had to change something, I would train first and then speak later. Sometimes you are happy when you play football and sometimes you are not happy. Maybe some people saw me when I was not happy."
So more moves followed, back to Paris, then Liverpool, Manchester City under Kevin Keegan, Fenerbahce and Bolton, before Chelsea's fee of £15m last weekend took him past Juan Sebastian Veron's record as the sport's costliest player. Now, after five barren years – except for one Turkish League title – it is time for some trophies. The Carling Cup – which is how Jose Mourinho began – would not be sniffed at: "It would be good for me. It could be a great start for me to play in a final."