Thompson gives the seal of approval to 'fantastic' Anelka

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The Independent Online

Nicolas Anelka starts the countdown to a meeting with his former club, Arsenal, with an encouraging endorsement from the Liverpool assistant manager, Phil Thompson.

Anelka, once the problem boy of Highbury, is expected back there on Sunday. Before that he is almost certain to lead Liverpool's attack in the Premiership game at Southampton tonight. But Thompson is delighted at the behaviour and performances of Liverpool's new loan signing, who would cost around £16m if signed permanently from Paris St-Germain.

"To everybody else signing him was a big gamble, but he has been fantastic around the place and settled in with the lads," Thompson said. "There's a lot of French speakers here and he's been able to mix very well. In training he's been fine, there's no complaints, and he's getting fitter and that has been shown in the games he's played. He's getting better all the time, sharper all the time."

With Michael Owen's ankle improving, but still likely to force him out of the trip to St Mary's, Anelka seems likely to form a partnership with Emile Heskey on the south coast. After his debut goal for the club in the FA Cup against Birmingham, the Frenchman will no doubt want to use the game to reach peak form before returning to Highbury.

Of Owen, Thompson said: "Michael Owen is improving, I'm glad to say, so it will be a late decision and he is in the squad, but we won't be taking any chances. He will have to be 100 per cent before we will play him, but he has improved greatly.

"If he doesn't make Southampton, which he is very much in the frame for, he'll certainly be fit for Arsenal."

Thompson hopes that, having rediscovered some form against Birmingham, Liverpool can translate it into the Premiership after a damaging run of six points from six games which has seen them slip from top to fifth.

Liverpool could move up to second if they beat Southampton, but are unlikely to regain top place because they have a significantly inferior goal difference to the leaders, Leeds. He said: "The blip hasn't done us too much damage, because we were almost sitting pretty at one stage. You know you will have a blip, and hopefully that's behind us."

The Southampton manager, Gordon Strachan, has backed the club's record signing, Rory Delap, to enjoy a prolonged spell in the first team after finally making an impact in his side. The £4m signing started his Saints career in an unfamiliar right-back role, but was out of the first-team picture altogether once Strachan replaced Stuart Gray.

An ankle injury to the midfield regular Matthew Oakley gave Delap his chance. After impressing Strachan during his run of starts, the Republic of Ireland international has now been reassured that the fit-again Oakley will not automatically reclaim his place tonight.

Strachan said: "Rory has done everything that could be asked of him and has looked very strong. Matt Oakley is fit but he will have to wait for his chance to get back in. The whole team is playing well and it is a nice position for me to be in.

"Players will have to be patient but if they get an opportunity they should be prepared to take it."

The former Coventry defender Paul Williams, who has been outstanding since his free transfer signing, has been receiving treatment for a groin strain but is expected to play. The Norwegian defender Claus Lundekvam has also been declared fit after recovering from a facial injury.

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