James Lawton: Ignore sneers about Le Sulk – Anelka has ability to make lasting name for himself

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The Independent Online

Nicolas Anelka would always have played football as sweetly by any other name, including Abdul-Salam Bilal, the one he has taken with his conversion to Islam, but then it seems that he will have to labour at least a little longer under the one sneeringly applied so many years ago.

How long? The instinct here is that, in one of the most thrilling developments in a season which has already seen an extraordinary outpouring of virtuosity from such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas, it could well be on the point of melting away.

The slur of "Le Sulk" has had a longevity which in some way says more about entrenched mob prejudice than clever coinage and it has been fired from the hip a wearisome number of times since Anelka's move from Bolton to Chelsea, a transfer which he swears will be his last one in a golden trail that has generated a record-shattering £86-odd million in fees.

Pause for cynicism here, maybe inevitably, but perhaps it should be remembered that if the striker has thus far only briefly argued with the idea that "Monsieur Teflon" might also have been an appropriate nickname, nor has he discouraged the belief of his warmest admirers that one day he might just be worth all the trouble. Belief, however strained, in Nicolas Anelka has always been supported by evidence of the highest class.

You do not have to be a dreamer to make this point. Nor do you need the bleeding-heart conviction that in every recidivist, money-grabbing celebrity football star there is the capacity for wholesale redemption, a sudden flowering of conviction and unswerving dedication.

You just have to recognise the fact that sometimes men do change; not in their deepest nature, maybe, but in their understanding of who and where they are and that maybe it is time to settle for what is available on this side of the hill.

Anelka inspired so much of his own worst publicity when he walked away from Arsenal nearly a decade ago under the influence of older brothers brandishing his talent as though it was the brightest bauble in the bazaar. It was, but they did not understand how carefully it had to be wrapped.

Now, in his 29th year, there should be restrained optimism that indeed he seems to sense that rarely has a player of utterly outstanding talent but questionable reputation had a better chance to write his name in the sky.

There was a hint of this when he spoke, quite evenly and logically, about Didier Drogba's choice between new adventure in Barcelona or Milan and the advantages of building on the empire he has made for himself at Stamford Bridge. Anelka said Drogba should stick around. He was too old to go travelling. Those who felt that such advice, from such a source, was risible had a point, of course, but it was one which for others was balanced by the eloquence of Anelka's brief outing against Spurs last weekend.

Anelka played with a poise and a cutting edge which was only fractionally denied two goals. His first for Chelsea is already overdue, a belief confirmed by the bookmakers who have him at 5-1 to score the first goal at Birmingham City today, against 6-1 for Andrei Shevchenko, and if it should happen it will be instant ratification of a truth that, in the worst of days, has always attached itself to arguably football's most gifted vagrant.

It is the one that says that for Anelka to play in any team that is not equipped to fulfil the highest ambition is nothing less than a football illiteracy, a mutation of reality best expressed by the fact that in the early prime of his career he was harnessed to the lumping tedium of Bolton Wanderers.

Earlier, when Gérard Houllier took him to Anfield the dazzle of his talent was clouded in the manager's mind by the track record and the brooding, distant, sullen personality. Anelka claims that much of that was about an in-built shyness in all but the collecting of a signing bonus. But Houllier stepped back and brought in El Hadji Diouf, who performed flashily for Senegal in the 2002 World Cup. It is an old decision, and old mistake, but its potential for returning demons was high as Avram Grant's belief Anelka can play a decisive hand in the boiling Premier League race was backed by the outlay of £15m.

Most intriguing has been the apparent ambivalence of Arsène Wenger, whose signing of Anelka for £500,000 was his equivalent of Svengali putting down his business card. Not one penny of the £23m Real Madrid paid for the 20-year-old, we can be sure, eased for Wenger the pain of his departure.

Early in his emergence in the first team, Anelka played exquisitely in an FA Cup tie at Middlesbrough. His touch and the timing of his runs were quite breathtaking. Afterwards, Wenger was asked if we had seen the opening statement of a great player. "Yes," he said "a truly great player."

The word is that Wenger's enduring admiration for the quality of Anelka's skill took him some of the way, but not quite far enough, to the conclusion that he might still be worth an investment that would have opened up for reappraisal a thousand old resentments, and perhaps disrupt the rhythm and unity of the young team that has shaped so vibrantly in the absence of Thierry Henry.

Still, Wenger spoke, for once at least, from beyond the barricades of the Premier League when he said, "I hope Nicolas Anelka does well wherever he goes. He has a great talent, and football will always need that."

Chelsea need it as a vital injection of lethal power in their battle to challenge Manchester United and Arsenal. But of course Wenger is right. There is a wider need. It is for those who believe in football as the beautiful game to see the best that it can produce. Anelka, for all his meandering, still surely represents that.

Memories of his dark arts in Paris spoil sparkle of Bilic

Slaven Bilic once again put on a dazzling show when Fabio Capello went to Zagreb to sort out World Cup qualifying dates. The man who so systematically, and brilliantly, banished England from the European Championship, talked vividly about the pressures of being cut-price coach of Croatia. He regaled listeners with the rich texture of the game, recalling football stories of delightful colour and irony.

He is an authentic football character, tough, a little desperate in his ambition at times but never less than beguiling for anyone who wants to know how the game works.

One day he may remove the last reservation here. He may explain adequately how it was that in the 1998 World Cup semi-final he performed arguably one of the most despicable acts ever seen on the football field. In normal circumstances, it might have been lost in the oncoming flood of cheating and sharp practice that has been engulfing the game at the highest level more or less ever since. Unfortunately, when Bilic grotesquely faked injury he was condemning Laurent Blanc, the great French central defender, to a place in the stand when Les Bleus won the World Cup.

Bilic's public relations are at times sensational. But then some would say they rather need to be.

Laxman hammers home the true answer to sledging

V V S Laxman has reminded the world of cricket that you do not beat Australia in the questionable arts of sledging. You simply clear away all but the best of your technique and fighting character.

If you play and miss, you banish the aberration. You take fresh guard and absolute concentration, whatever they are saying about you, your girlfriend and all that you have ever done in the game.

The Aussies are not the most formidable team the game has ever seen simply because of what Steve Waugh described so graphically as the capacity to provoke "mental disintegration", but it is idle to pretend it is not a crucial advantage. For that you only have to ask England, who surrendered the Ashes so meekly after the summer of their greatest achievement. They were laid waste long before the end of the first Test in Brisbane.

What England couldn't do was earn significant respect – always a basic demand for a decent showing Down Under. Laxman's fighting innings in Perth carried no guarantees but it brought his team back to life. It also took cricket a step away from the gutter.