Nicolas Anelka's goal in Lithuania on Saturday was not just a winner that secured three valuable UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying points, it was also symbolic of his rebirth with Les Bleus.
His performance in Kaunas may not quite have surpassed the one he gave on 10 February 1999, when on the night of his fifth cap he scored both goals in France's only defeat of England at the old Wembley. However, while he is yet to match that two-goal tally in a national-team shirt, the Bolton Wanderers FC striker's contribution on Saturday was almost as significant as his efforts eight years ago.
Scotland's last-gasp victory against Georgia earlier in the afternoon had made it even more vital that France picked up maximum points to stay level with the Group B leaders and clear of Italy and Ukraine. Seventeen minutes from the end the game was still level before Anelka cut in from the left 30 metres out, ignited his turbo boost and shot low into the net. His ninth goal in 35 caps may prove the most valuable of all.
"When he plays that way, Nicolas's place in the starting XI is unquestionable," said coach Raymond Domenech, who recalled Anelka in November 2005 after three and a half years away from the national team but has used him sporadically since. His decision to give Anelka his first competitive start since UEFA EURO 2000™ in the absence of Thierry Henry was justified by a superb performance as lone striker and then, after the hour, in tandem with Djibril Cissé. Lithuania had little chance of holding out for any longer than they did.
"It's good to score in an important game away from home," the 28-year-old Anelka said. "I am used to playing in such high-stakes game and showed it." His last qualifying start had come way back on 4 September 1999 in a 0-0 draw in Ukraine, with Anelka subsequently ruling himself out of international selection when - unlike his close friends Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Lilian Thuram - he found himself only a back-up for Jacques Santini in 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign.
That action, some outspoken words, and his frequent changes of club, seemed to mark out Anelka as a mercurial talent, to an extent comparable to Eric Cantona, George Best or Hristo Stoitchkov, and like those often forgiven thanks to his brilliance on the pitch. So when Domenech used Anelka in France's tour of the Caribbean late in 2005, the forward scoring in a 3-2 win against Costa Rica, the past was put to bed.
"When I was recalled and played in that game, I understood several simple things," Anelka reflected. "When I was younger, I appeared selfish and unfriendly because I was afraid to speak out as the media never miss an opportunity to laugh at you or blame you. I'm more open today as I have become more mature, more adult."
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