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The return of Le Sulk

The Parisian suburbs may be in flames, but one of their sons gets the chance to reignite his international career on Wednesday night.

Nicolas Anelka, whose home town of Trappes has seen rioting by alienated youths, is expected to feature heavily for France as they take on Costa Rica on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

With David Trezeguet out of the trip through injury, the Fenerbahçe man may be handed a start alongside Thierry Henry. Anelka needs to show that he has left his petulant, disaffected side in the banlieue; that he is a different person from the one that demanded that coach Jacques Santini 'get down on his knees and apologise' if he wanted him to play for France again.

Santini's successor, Raymond Domenech has made it an article of faith to exclude talented yet awkward player such as Anelka, Robert Pirès, Johan Micoud and Mikaël Silvestre. Yet, perhaps after watching a video of Djibril Cissé trying to control a football, Domenech has given the Incredible Sulk the chance to book his place at next summer's World Cup.

While the ball bounces off Cissé like a toddler off a trampoline, Anelka possesses a much more sophisticated touch, superb vision and similar searing pace to Liverpool's peroxide pest. But Cissé is a gregarious and popular character while Anelka's social skills don't match his footballing ones.

Last month he took a public shot at Cissé, saying: 'It makes me laugh when I see that there are strikers in England who don't score any goals but still get called up.' Imagine his mirth if Peter Crouch were French. It will be interesting to see how Anelka's return affects a seemingly brittle dressing-room dynamic.

Anelka's return gave hope to Pirès, who has been persona non grata since telling France Football magazine that Domenech treated the players like schoolboys. 'I am very happy for Nicolas and I hope to follow his path one day,' he said. 'Quite simply, his selection has given me a real hope of playing in the World Cup.'

Arsène Wenger no doubt reacted with horror to Pirès's remarks. His aversion to Les Bleus - whether Chelsea or France - is well-documented, and he warned that it would be 'very dangerous' for Thierry Henry to play 90 minutes in Martinique.

If Henry comes back injured it would be no surprise to see Wenger rip off his shirt, fashion a makeshift bandana from his tie and shoot up the French Football Federation, Rambo-style.

Meanwhile, the battle between goalkeepers Grégory Coupet and Fabien Barthez goes on. Days after promising to name his one and insisting he wouldn't rotate his keepers, Domenech performed a spectacular u-turn on Tuesday, saying that he wasn't ready to make a decision, and announcing that both players would be, er, rotated.

It makes me laugh when I see that there are strikers in England who don't score any goals but still get called up.
Nicolas Anelka

Barthez will play against Costa Rica, while Coupet starts against Germany on Saturday. Say what you like about Germany's declining might, but it is probably fair to say that Coupet has received the tougher assignment.

Nearly all the indicators point towards the Lyon captain as the superior player. He has been in outstanding form for the last year, while his rival spent much of it suspended for spitting at a referee. Coupet kept goal with distinction in the closing stages of the qualifying campaign, and is another well-liked member of the squad. The prickly Barthez only recently returned to action and just last weekend made a horrible blunder.

Barthez fumbled an easy shot for Le Mans' first goal in a 3-0 drubbing of Marseille, prompting taunts of 'Merci Barthez!' from the home crowd. Meanwhile, Coupet kept his ninth clean sheet of the season as Lyon won yet again. It should be a no-brainer, and in Barthez's case some would say that it is.

But he has won the World Cup. It is impossible to overstate the esteem in which France's World Cup-winners are held, and his experience from 1998 alone may be enough to tip the balance in his favour.

There were, inevitably, protests about playing a home friendly in a Caribbean 'DOM' - an overseas departement whose residents vote in French elections, hold French passports and drive cars with French number plates. Even Lilian Thuram, whose birthplace of Guadeloupe is another 'DOM' had reservations about staging a match in the Caribbean just three days after many players were in domestic action.

'You can tell this match doesn't come at the right moment because some players are tired,' said Thuram. 'But beyond the sporting aspect there's something much more important. It's a good idea to play here.'

Wenger was predictably scathing, decrying the trip as 'scandalous', while Gérard Houllier threatened to withdraw the six Lyon players in the squad before eventually relenting. His team's league form has been so dominant that it would take more than tiredness to stop them. In fact, anything short of a mass outbreak of bird flu would be shrugged off as a minor inconvenience.

They have been boosted further by the incompetence of their rivals. The day after promoted Le Mans spanked Marseille, Paris St-Germain and Monaco played out a dire goalless draw at the Parc des Princes, leaving them 12 and 15 points behind the leaders respectively.

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