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Jan 31, 2005

City may rue Anelka loss

It's a shame that the title 'How to Lose Friends and Alienate People' has been used. To many, it would seem the perfect name for Nicolas Anelka's autobiography. Fenerbahce's newest forward is starting life in Turkey after his acrimonious exit from Manchester City.

And with Anelka's many transfers, there always appears to be an element of acrimony. City's refusenik (some would say Refuse-Nic)'s refusal to play against Arsenal appears to make him a fully paid-up member of the bad boys brigade with Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Pennant.

He leaves Manchester City short of strikers, money and time to find a replacement. Selling a £13m forward at a £6m loss appears a particularly disastrous example of Keeganomics. It is an economic discipline founded on outlandish optimism and increasing nostalgia, but has become discredited over the last two years.

Anelka may have engineered his exit, but he is not responsible for City's heavy spending and substantial debts. Moreover, that loss notwithstanding, he has been a success in his two-and-a-half years at first Maine Road and then the City of Manchester Stadium. A record of 38 goals in 87 Premiership starts compares favourably with many forwards who do not attract the same amount of opprobrium as Anelka.

Apart from Shaun Wright-Phillips, no one has played a greater part in re-establishing City as a Premiership club. He leaves them all but guaranteed a fourth successive season in the top flight and last year, when relegation was a greater possibility, scoring 25 goals (17 in the Premiership) was an outstanding achievement.

Especially in a mismatched strike duo. Anelka and Robbie Fowler were not so much a partnership as the two individuals in attack for City. Crystal Palace were the victims of a vignette of vintage Fowler recently, but Anelka was absent. Similarly, the slower striker missed many of Anelka's stellar displays.

As a partnership, they completed 2004 without scoring in the same game. A 2-2 draw with their former club Liverpool in December 2003 was the last time when Anelka and Fowler were in harmony on the scoresheet.

Having shared the forward line with Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Raul, Anelka could be forgiven for being nonplussed with Fowler, Shaun Goater, Paolo Wanchope, Darren Huckerby, Jon Macken and Antoine Sibierski.

A 2-2 draw with their former club Liverpool in December 2003 was the last time when Anelka and Fowler were in harmony on the scoresheet.
And a sixth move of his nomadic career clearly appealed more than Keegan's pipe dream of a top six finish. It may be a hunch, but the comparative footballing backwater of Turkey probably was not Anelka's ideal destination.

It takes his total transfer fees past £60m and it is hard to imagine that Fenerbahce is Anelka's final club. Nor should it be; at 25, Anelka is approaching his peak yet, with Liverpool, PSG (twice), Real Madrid, Arsenal and France all in the past, his last two moves could be those of a player 10 years his senior.

His availability in January hardly sparked an auction. Perhaps it should; Gerard Houllier nominated Anelka as the most gifted member of a France Under-18 team that also included Henry and David Trezeguet. This is the same Houllier who spurned Anelka for the serial spitter El-Hadji Diouf at Liverpool. Hindsight, of course, suggests it was not Houllier's finest decision.

Liverpool were linked again with Anelka this month, but opted for Fernando Morientes instead. It leaves Anelka looking unfulfilled as one of the leading talents of his generation heading off to, even with the most flattering slant, Europe's sixth best league.

There, he can escape from the continually fluctuating fortunes of Manchester City, but shedding an unwanted reputation will be harder. It incorporates complaints that Bergkamp and Marc Overmars would not pass to him, a 45-day suspension at Real Madrid and a reluctance to report for international duty unless he was guaranteed a start.

The damage may already have been done. Hampered by the 'incredible sulk' tag and body language that, at best, is languid, Anelka has been typecast as the unpredictable loner. But for the majority of his time at Manchester City, enigmatic matchwinner was a fairer description.

Anelka: Back in England with a fourth club?
Anelka: Back in England with a fourth club?

And mercurial and moody as he can be, neither the Premiership nor Manchester City will be better off without Nicolas Anelka. Together with the effervescent Wright-Phillips, he elevated City from the ranks of the workmanlike mid-table sides who rely on endeavour alone to get results.

They may not be as high maintenance as Anelka, but their performances rarely reach such peaks, either. The combination of attributes the £60m striker possesses - the ability to conjure goals from unpromising positions, glide past opponents with almost unrivalled acceleration and the ingenuity required to prosper alone in attack - explain the exalted clubs on his CV and the hefty fees he commanded.

But as much as a further demonstration of his talent at Fenerbahce, learning to win friends and influence people may be the determining factor if Anelka is to return from Turkish exile to the kind of club once queuing up for him.

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