Pitchside Europe

The curious case of Nicolas Anelka

Pitchside Europe

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When Fabio Quagliarella opened the scoring in the Derby d'Italia with a trademark spectacular strike on Saturday, he made a point of running over to the Juventus dugout at San Siro to celebrate with one of his team-mates. It was Nicolas Anelka.

More acknowledgment was to come later in the game too.

After restoring Juventus' lead in the second half, Alessandro Matri also sought Anelka out. They embraced. It was as if he had played a part in another Juventus goal and their 2-1 victory.

And yet, how could he have done? He was on the bench as is nearly always the case.

"I prefer a difficult assist to an easy goal," Anelka told Hurrà Juventus shortly after joining the club. Managing two without even being on the pitch is certainly difficult, an unprecedented accomplishment perhaps.

After the game, the assembled journalists were understandably curious to know why Quagliarella and Matri had credited their goals to Anelka.

"He told us that we would score," Quagliarella revealed. "We're only too happy to dedicate them to him."

Earlier in the week France Football had asked on their front page: "What is [Anelka] doing [at Juventus]?" Bringing them powers of prediction maybe?

Seriously, though, Anelka has played just 23 minutes since his arrival in Turin at the end of the January transfer window.

Whether the situation suits him or not has been a matter of some debate. Judging by his post on Twitter last Thursday denying a report that he was considering rescinding his contract, one can assume that it does.

Anelka was under no illusion about what his role at Juventus would be. General manager Beppe Marotta laid it out in no uncertain terms.

"Anelka is a stop-gap reinforcement," he said. "We have to patch up an emergency situation."

The emergency Marotta was referring to arguably wasn't really worthy of the status. True, Juventus were experiencing difficulty scoring at the time Anelka's private jet landed at Caselle airport on January 26.

Frustratingly, they had drawn three of their last four games 1-1 and would be knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Lazio the following evening.

This led some to labour under the misapprehension that Anelka was signed to solve that problem. He wasn't. Until Fernando Llorente completes his move from Athletic Bilbao in the summer, Juventus are prepared to make do in the meantime.

Far from being identified as a possible number one striker, Anelka was brought in as their number five. Unlikely though it is that it was sold to him in these terms, he was simply a replacement for the injured on loan Arsenal forward Nicklas Bendtner.

As you can maybe imagine the response to Anelka's arrival was pretty underwhelming, particularly when it looked at one point like Juventus would be signing his former Chelsea and Shanghai teammate Didier Drogba.

A poll in La Gazzetta dello Sport showed that 76% of readers thought Juventus didn't need him. Two months later, they probably feel justified.

But as became apparent in the Derby d'Italia, Anelka has brought something to Juventus and that believe it or not is peace of mind, both, and I jest, in his predictions and, above all, in knowing that they're covered should anything happen to Quagliarella, Matri, Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco. Saturday's opponents Inter don't have that.

When Diego Milito suffered a horrific season-ending injury in February, they were caught short. The purchase of Tommaso Rocchi as a deputy had been a token gesture and so unconvinced were Inter by him that they even gave a brief and unsuccessful trial to John Carew. He hadn't played in nearly a year.

"His present physical condition would need a lengthy period of fitness work not compatible with the needs of the club," a statement read.

Anelka wasn't exactly fit and raring to go for Juventus after a year in Shanghai either. Marotta admitted as much at his official unveiling: "We know that at the moment [his] physical condition isn't excellent."

The difference was that Juventus had greater depth in the position than Inter. They could afford Anelka the time to get in shape and in sync to be ready should he ever be called upon.

Even taking that into account, it still beggared belief, though. Anelka had signed a five-month contract. What was the point of it if he were to spend much of that time working on his fitness?

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Anelka takes to the pitch - briefly - against Roma

His last goal of any note in a major league was on August 20, 2011. In a worst case scenario, would he have been in a state to help Juventus? Fortunately for them, it hasn't come to that. But at least in the event that it does they have an option.

That Anelka is happy to be that guy has led some to question his motives. He's 34 and could still contribute on a regular basis somewhere if he wanted to. Does not doing so make him a mercenary? To some, yes. Juventus legend Zibi Boniek is one of them.

"To me, he stopped being a footballer two years ago," he told France Football, "but he's very smart and very good.

"He always finds a club. He succeeds in finding what he wants. It's amazing how you can manage a career, still earning money when you're no longer a footballer.

"Too bad I'm not Anelka's agent, who I always liked as a footballer. Because you're selling a product you don't see. It's beautiful, is it not?"

Behind the cynicism, Boniek makes a good point, even if Anelka is earning approximately seven times less at Juventus what he was at Shanghai Shenhua, his monthly wages dropping from €920,000 net to a reported €120-140,000 net. It's still not bad, though, is it?

In fairness to Anelka, he presumably could have gone to play in Qatar and made more money if he'd instructed his agents to find a club there. Instead he told them to look for one in Italy.

When Juventus were offered his services and replied that they'd be interested, why wouldn't he want to go to the champions of Italy, play in a new stadium in a new country and in one of the best leagues in the world?

"I wanted to be at all the teams that I've played for," Anelka told Hurrà Juventus. In this case, you get the feeling he's being sincere.

"I haven't come to take anyone's place," Anelka insisted. That's not a lack of ambition but the sort of selflessness that Juventus coach Antonio Conte demands of his players.

To his credit, by all accounts he has been a consummate professional, a team player too. He trains, goes home and keeps his head down. A leader of one of Juventus' fan clubs likes how he's never seen out at night.

He has been respectful and hasn't taken the mickey like someone who was there simply for the money might be.

He even lives in Turin, not outside the city like the other players, instead choosing an apartment in via Filadelfia of all places, the street where Torino's hallowed old ground resides. It's a working class part of town. Not exclusive by any means.

It has led to the impression that Anelka is human, humble even despite his wealth. It's all rather bizarre.

Anelka wasn't even on the Juventus bench for Tuesday night's match against Bayern Munich. And who knows? Maybe his absence was enough to unsettle Italy's champions elect as they fell to a first Champions League defeat of the season.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

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