Is there room for Anelka at West Brom?
By Oliver Wilson
Two Premier League medals, three FA Cup winners medals and a Champions League medal.
To say that Nicolas Anelka's resumé is an impressive one would be quite the understatement. Loved by few in football, but always wanted, Anelka's career has been one that has seen him land on his feet whenever he's been forced to move to pastures new.
Brought to England by Arsene Wenger in 1997, the Frenchman thrived under the guidance and style of play his fellow countryman offered him. In a team which was beginning to see the rise of stars such as Patrick Viera and Marc Overmars, while Dennis Bergkamp was playing some of the best football he’s ever produced. Anelka thrived in this environment with his teammates and garnered a reputation as one of the best young strikers in the country. Anelka soon off to Madrid following the 1999 season, where he won his only Champions League winners medal, but after disappointing in Spain, with only two goals in 19 appearances for the club, Anelka was quickly moved on around Europe.
His career has taken him to France, England - playing for Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton and Chelsea - as well as enjoying a spell in Istanbul with Fenerbahçe, but now it appears he could be heading to the Midland's for one final hooray with Steve Clarke and West Bromwich Albion.
Anelka joined Chelsea in January 2008 after impressing during a brief stint at Bolton Wanderers. The striker was, though, a shadow of the hot talent that had impressed so many during his time at Highbury and he carried with him a reputation of egotistical behavior in the dressing room and laziness on the pitch. Despite this image, then Chelsea manager Avram Grant had sought out the services of Anelka to help reinvigorate his sides attack. Clarke was still the club's assistant manager at the time, although he left just a few months later in the September of 2008. Anelka scored just four league goals in his time working with Clarke at Chelsea, although did go on to score a total of 19 by the end of the 2008/09 season. But why does Clarke want him back at the Baggies? His final two seasons at the Bridge brought just seven league goals, and his forays into China and Serie A since then have seen him become a player, manager and cast out loanee in the space of just over a year. At the age of 34, Anelka hardly appears to be the Premier League striker of his hay day.
Clarke, though, must go looking for a striker this summer.
His fantastic first season at the Hawthorns brought more than even the most optimistic Baggie's fan could imagine. A near perfect start to the campaign saw Clarke's men beat Liverpool at home on the first day of the season before securing a draw away at Tottenham and another home win against Everton.
Their play was energetic and vibrant with Youssuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob frustrating the opposition in the heart of the pitch, winning possession time and time again for their teammates, while Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson made a physical and formidable partnership as a centre-back pairing.
Much of their success as the season continued, however, came with a helping hand from their loanee striker Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian youngster joined from Chelsea looking for regular playing time and managed to muscle his way into the starting 11 within the first months of the season. As his playing time grew his Premier League stock continued to rise, and Lukaku was soon finding the back of the net on regular occasions and thrilling the fans with his bullish, yet graceful play.
His 17 goals in 35 appearances were invaluable to his side's top eight finish but with his loan spell over, Clarke must now find a new target man. Shane Long was been, for the last two seasons, a very promising young striker with both pace and a finishing touch. Long, though, has not worked out as a lone striker, despite his ability to impose himself in the air and on the ground, with the Irishman thriving off the play of Lukaku or Peter Odemwingie to improve his chances in front of goal.
With Lukaku back at his parent club and Odemwingie out of favour - to put it mildly - after his transfer deadline day stunt in Loftus Road last January, Long suddenly needs a quality strike partner.
If Anelka is to be the one to come to West Brom, then he must realize before joining that Long is the future of the Baggies attack. His job, much as it was at Chelsea should be to act as a provider for the former Reading forward, helping to hold play up and find passes through the channels for Long to chase onto. If his old attitude and immaturity - that has been called into question so often during his career - begins to flare up again, Clarke will have to take control before a prominent figure like the 34-year-old Frenchman can do any damage to the team unity and fragile balance that helped propel them to their best Premier League finish to date.
There is no room for egos at the Hawthorns as the Baggies look to capitalise on the foundations laid over the last 12-months. The opportunity to bring an experienced striker like Anelka to replace the spark that was Lukaku last season is potentially a prosperous one, replacing youthful exuberance with a cool head and experience. Bringing in the right player at the right time, however, is a big decision that Clarke must make this summer, because it's a decision that could make or break their season.