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Page last updated at 15:42 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Incredible Sulk has the last laugh

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

He was dubbed 'The Incredible Sulk', English fans saw him as a football mercenary and in 2006, his international career was all washed up. But in the coming months, Nicolas Anelka could become one of the most significant players on the planet.

Nicolas Anelka
Anelka has put France within touching distance of the World Cup finals

In Wednesday's World Cup play-off second leg in Paris against the Republic of Ireland, the Chelsea striker holds the key to French qualification.

His goal from the first leg separates the countries and he was the main difference between the two sides at the weekend.

The Republic did have their chances at Croke Park - Robbie Keane's first-half close-range effort was saved and Liam Lawrence should have scored from the follow-up while Glenn Whelan was denied late on.

But the French had the better players and should have made more of their second-half superiority.

It will be a major shock if the Republic can come back from the weekend's dismal defeat when the quality of the French passing grew stronger as the game went on and the Irish began to toil.

The statistics are against them. France have never lost a World Cup qualifier at Stade de France and although Scotland famously won a European Championship qualifier in Paris in 2007, it was at the Parc des Princes.

Les Bleus haven't been beaten at the Stade de France in a competitive game since Russia triumphed there in another Euro qualifier in June 1999.

You have to go back to November 1993 for their last ever home defeat in a World Cup qualifier.

It was the notorious game against Bulgaria when with 23 seconds left, David Ginola gave the ball away cheaply, the visitors swept down field and Emil Kostadinov scored their decisive second.

France were out of the World Cup, Gerard Houllier resigned as manager and the international career of Ginola was ruined.

Since then, France have ruled Europe and the world. Their current team isn't a patch on their 1998 World Cup winners or the Euro 2000 champions. It will have to improve drastically to be a force in South Africa but it's still almost certain to be too good for the Republic.

The Irish simply have no-one in the same class as Anelka or Thierry Henry.

Barcelona striker Henry will become the second-highest capped Frenchman when he steps out for his 117th appearance. Among his national record 51 goals are precious strikes in this qualifying campaign which earned a point at home to Romania and away in Serbia.

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France stuttered throughout their group seven campaign after a shocking 3-1 defeat in their opening match away in Austria.

That match came on the back of a very poor Euro 2008 finals and it was their third defeat in four matches. For a country that had lost just 14 competitive games in 155 internationals over the previous 14 years, that was unthinkable.

That Raymond Domenech, a curate's egg of a manager, is still in a job is baffling.

It's been reported that he had a major bust-up with Henry before the Croke Park game. It wouldn't be the first time, or the last I suspect. Henry is said to have a major influence in the dressing room and it's largely down to him that Anelka is now enjoying such a revival.

Though they never played together at Arsenal (Henry was bought to replace Anelka) Arsene Wenger would have briefed Thierry about the prodigious talent the young 'Nico' had shown in the Gunners' double-winning season of 1997/98.

Besides that, they knew each other from Parisian junior football and the French youth international set-up but it was at Euro 2000 where they teamed up to great effect.

Henry kept in close contact with a player who had fallen out of love with Arsenal fans and moved acrimoniously to Real Madrid. His subsequent spells at Liverpool, Manchester City and Bolton reinforced the public impression that he had ability but a moody countenance where a scowl always seemed more likely than a smile. He was like Cantona without the charisma or world class.

When Chelsea signed him for £15m in January 2008, eyebrows were raised. When he didn't seem hurt by his penalty flop in the 2008 Champions League final, he had few friends in the old Shed end.

Because of failure to settle long anywhere his international career went backwards.

When Sidney Govou was called up to replace the injured Djibril Cisse on the eve of the 2006 World Cup finals, there seemed no way back into the squad for Anelka.

From the 2001 Confederations Cup to September 2007, he failed to start a competitive international, but Henry and others kept nagging away.

They knew, as the player himself has always maintained, that he is a better forward when he's played off the main striker.

Didier Drogba (left) and Nicolas Anelka (right)
Drogba (left) and Anelka (right) are one of Europe's most lethal strike duos

Although the critics couldn't see how he could partner Didier Drogba effectively, Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink couldn't understand the argument. His decision to persist with them together revitalised both men.

In 2009 they have started together 28 times for Chelsea. They have won 21 of those games, drawn four and lost just three, scoring 26 goals between them.

Drogba's power and pace makes him a terrific force. But Anelka is also quick in feet and thought. By dropping deep and often wide he can create chances for the Ivorian.

They form the most potent attacking partnership in European club football right now and both have become much more all-round team players since they started playing together.

Anelka came back into the starting line-up for France's Euro qualifier in Lithuania in March 2007, scored the only goal and has played in 28 of their last 36 matches. He is now crucial for country and club.

Domenech can use him and Henry behind the raw but energetic Andre-Pierre Gignac, who has four goals from his first nine internationals and had one disallowed in Dublin, and has had a bountiful scoring year with unfancied Toulouse.

Anelka now has more licence to roam for club and country. He's enjoying life at last and football is learning to enjoy him.

That won't be much comfort for Irish fans but they will take some cheer from the memory that the Scots won in Paris two years ago and that the Republic held France 0-0 in the same city in October 2004. Given, O'Shea, Duff and Keane were there that night. So was I.

It was a resolute and brave Irish performance. They had their moments on top. France lacked creativity and a cutting edge but I always felt they were the more likely side to score.

That was the tale again last weekend. I fear it will the same story again in the second leg when once more the old "Incredible Sulk" will be smiling.




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see also
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New Zealand 1-0 Bahrain
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Kiwis on the brink of World Cup
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World Cup qualifying reaches climax
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Who can step up to topple Liverpool?
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Will Benni save SA?
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Stepping out of the shadows
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Foster's testing future
06 Oct 09 |  Man Utd
Last fan standing
02 Oct 09 |  Everton
Missing link is hurting Gunners
18 Sep 09 |  Arsenal


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