How he would have loved — yesterday more than ever — to turn on the magic, to show the club who spurned him that they had made a dreadful mistake. In the end it was not to be for Nicolas Anelka — on loan at Liverpool last season for 20 games — as the man who was preferred instead to bolster Anfield’s attack emerged in a much more favourable light after months of doubt and criticism.
The performance of El-Hadji Diouf, Liverpool’s £10 million summer signing, could in no way be described as a revelation — it was much too workmanlike for that — but the Senegal international did at least figure consistently whenever the visitors crept forward.
Anelka, meanwhile, was largely left, apart from one good goalscoring chance in the first half, to feed off hopeful lobs and passes that never really threatened. How frustrating must that have been' After scoring 10 goals for Manchester City this season, Anelka, the artist formerly known as the Incredible Sulk, is playing like he means it with the suggestion of a smile on his face. There is even a rumour that he could stick around for the foreseeable future if Kevin Keegan continues to motivate like he has managed so far.
That has always been half the battle with this hugely talented Frenchman. Make him feel wanted, don’t mess with his emotions, otherwise you may unfortunately end up with a dissatisfied grump. Keegan has stuck by those rules. Before the New Year’s Day match against Everton, Anelka had completed every minute of City’s 24 League and Cup fixtures.
But on one or two occasions yesterday the arms flew up in disgust after the chance to lay him in was spoiled by sloppy passing. Not everything, though, was someone else’s fault. For one so frighteningly quick, Anelka should not get caught offside as often as he does. He could certainly have afforded to give Liverpool’s back line a head start and still reach the ball first.
That was highlighted perfectly when Anelka, for once, patiently held his run, then sprinted on to Eyal Berkovic’s measured pass. A one-on-one with Chris Kirkland ended in disappointment when the striker’s sidefoot struck the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg.
Before that chance, his Liverpool counterpart had also proved a disappointment only in a slightly different way. Diouf shamelessly tried to con the referee by flinging himself to the turf in the penalty area after no contact had been made. Mysteriously, Berkovic was later booked for exactly the same offence. Diouf could, in fact, have grabbed an unlikely brace in stoppage time when Peter Schmeichel embarked on his customary last-ditch attempts at trying to save the match.
The striker should certainly have done better on the counter attack when, with an empty goal gaping, he hit a defender.
Houllier was very quick afterwards to emphasise Diouf will only get better. Only a fool jumps in to make hasty judgements during a player’s debut season in England. No doubt the Liverpool manager was right there. But as Anelka limped out of Maine Road on crutches with a bandaged foot, you couldn’t help but feel Liverpool, despite yesterday’s showing, had let a precious one go.