West Brom striker Nicolas Anelka could be out of action until near the end of the Barclays Premier League relegation run-in if an independent Football Association panel decides his 'quenelle' gesture was racist in nature.
The Frenchman faces a minimum five-match ban after being charged by the FA for the gesture he made after scoring against West Ham on December 28. Anelka insists the 'quenelle' is an anti-establishment gesture, but others say it is widely regarded as being anti-Semitic.
The 34-year-old has denied the charge and requested a personal hearing, which is expected to start next week and run for a few days.
Albion head coach Pepe Mel has revealed Anelka will not be fit enough to face Fulham on Saturday despite returning to training after a shin injury on Thursday, which means the striker may not feature before the FA hands down a verdict.
"Nicolas had his first training session on Thursday so it's impossible that he plays against Fulham," said Spanish coach Mel.
"He is out. He's fit and he's good after the injury but he hasn't trained enough.
"As for the other thing - sorry, I'm the head coach only. I'd like the better outcome for Nicolas and West Brom but I respect the FA and its decision is good for me."
Asked if he was frustrated by the time taken to settle the matter, Mel said: "It's the rules. For me, what's important is that Nicolas was injured (anyway) and it wasn't possible for him to play in recent matches.
"In the future, I don't know."
Struggling Albion are one place above the relegation zone, ahead of Sunderland on goal difference only.
However Mel, who replaced the sacked Steve Clarke last month, remains absolutely certain that they will preserve their Premier League status.
"I am sure, of course," he said.
"West Brom will be playing in the Premier League, I'm sure.
"But more important for me is that the players think that too. I'm the coach, I don't play. That's the players.
"I agree with (captain) Chris Brunt that we need to win five games."