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Sep 19, 2009

A match made in heaven for Anelka

They often say opposites attract and that certainly seems to be the case for Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba at Chelsea this season.

From the moment Anelka arrived at Chelsea, a theory quickly developed that he and Drogba were incompatible in the same starting line-up. First Avram Grant and then Big Phil Scolari, were firm proponents of the theory, and Nic and Didier were denied the chance to develop a feeling for each other.

In a team that had long favoured a formation built around one dominant front man, Anelka soon established himself as a full-time bench warmer, often looking frustrated kicking his heels on the touchline as boss Grant used him sparingly after his £15 million arrival from Bolton in January 2008.

Scolari's arrival signalled no change to the script, it seemed Anelka and Drogba could never enjoy a happy marriage as the Brazilian favoured the Anelka over the Ivory Coast brute, sparking a predictably sulky reaction from the African half of this temperamental double act.

Quite why two world class strikers could not fit into the same team was a mystery and, when Guus Hiddink took the reins at Stamford Bridge, he decided it was time Chelsea's jigsaw was assembled differently. And the ESPN analyst proved his tactical nous once more by fitting these two maverick pieces together in the same starting line-up.

They may not have always lined up alongside each other in a conventional 4-4-2 formation, but a revived Drogba and a free-scoring Anelka finally found a way to co-habit at the back end of last season and were duly rewarded as a result. With Drogba becoming an FA Cup final hero and Anelka taking home the Premier League's golden boot, both could claim to be satisfied with their lot at last.

New Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti clearly liked what he saw from the duo in the first half of 2009 as one of his first declarations on arriving at Stamford Bridge was that the pair could, and would, be first choice for him this season.

"I have never understood why players of such quality cannot play together," stated the Italian coach, who has made an impressive start to life as Blues boss. "Maybe the formation of the team was their problem in the past because it is not always easy for two strikers to fit into a side with five midfielders. Sometimes one has to play out wide and he doesn't always like this.

It seemed the previously unsolvable conundrum needed a mild-mannered Italian to explain its solution in plain English. "My view is simple. Drogba is the obvious front man and Nicolas can play just behind him, picking up the balls Didier knocks down and following up when the shots are put on goal. Anelka has the pace and skill to do this role perfectly. In my first few weeks here, I could see them working together perfectly on the training ground, so it was never an issue for me."

It appeared Anelka's Chelsea career was coming to a rapid end after he missed the crucial penalty in the Champions League final shoot-out against Manchester United in May 2008. The man once christened "Le Sulk" blamed boss Avram Grant for not giving him enough time to warm up before he appeared as a substitute, comments that hardly aided his image as one of the game's complainers.

The 2008-09 season saw a new manager in Phil Scolari and Anelka grasped his first-team opportunity with both hands, winning over previously sceptical fans with a glut of goals at the start of the campaign and displaying, apparently, a much improved attitude.

It's easy to be content when you are playing regularly for one of Europe's top sides, but at the age of 30, Anelka seems to have finally twinned maturity with the ability he has shown from a young age.

"The idea when I first joined Chelsea was that I could play up front with Didier as this is what the coach said to me," he reflects. "This never happened as people seemed to think I could not play with him even though we never tried it. I never understood why we were never given a chance to start a partnership, but this is the way it was. You need to ask the manager at the time why it happened.

"Now we have been given the chance to work together and people can see it is a good partnership. One big striker, the other quick and able to take chances. That is normally a good combination, but it took a long time for people to see it at Chelsea. Now we are starting to look for each other all the time and finding a way succeed."

Anelka's classy Champions League winner against FC Porto on Tuesday night - playing up front without the suspended Drogba - provided further proof that this wandering soul is now fully immersed in the Chelsea project after a career that has seen him make too many moves for his own good.

Arsenal, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bolton have all benefited from his talents and experienced his mood swings down the years, with his reputation as something of an outsider in each dressing room frequently follows close behind.

Clearly, this is the one subject that fires the passion in the French international. "If people criticise me for the way I play football, I have no complaints, but I don't like it when they question me as a person. They ask about your character, but my job is on the pitch and not outside. Those who criticise my personality have never met me so how would they know?

"I haven't done anything wrong in my career and just because I don't drink or go out to nightclubs and get photographed in the newspapers, people doubt my character. I don't like the showbiz element of this game and prefer to have a simple life.

"Instead of going clubbing, I like to stay at home at night, watch TV or go to restaurants with my friends. If other footballers want to do something more exciting then that's their decision, but their life would not make me happy. If people don't like my character, there is nothing I can do. "When people say Anelka doesn't smile too much, this is because I don't show my emotion so well. I laugh when my friends see me, but I don't smile so much on the pitch because football is work. I should not be criticised for being shy."

Anelka and Drogba go into battle against London rivals Tottenham this Sunday with their confidence sky high after Ancelotti's decision to put his total faith in their combined talents, with Anelka clearly relishing life under the two-time Champions League winning coach.

"I need to be happy working with a coach and must have confidence that he wants me in his team," says Anelka. "All of us at Chelsea feel this with Ancelotti and his record as a top European coach proves his methods work. Hopefully Didier and I can continue to score goals this season and then no one will say we are not good together."

After an initial battle of wills to claim the one striking spot available in the Chelsea starting line-up, you get the feeling that Anelka and Drogba are now on a mission to silence the doubters who claim their "odd couple" relationship cannot function.

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