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Anelka evolves into a role model

His ability and achievements have been overshadowed by his perceived surly attitude but the Chelsea striker is a worthy contender.

Talk of this season's Player of the Year might sound premature, but a few household names are inevitably in the frame. Cesc Fabregas, Shay Given, Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba would all be in the running if the award was handed out today but, for some, Nicolas Anelka would be a worthy contender. His seven Premier League goals do not begin to tell his contribution this season.

Chelsea's broody French striker has been ignored for the top accolade since his PFA Young Player of the Year prize 11 years ago while at Arsenal. His ability and achievements have been overshadowed by his perceived surly attitude. But Ray Wilkins, Chelsea's assistant manager, said no one should doubt Anelka's quality and his reputation among his fellow professionals. "I think deep down, to his peers, I think they rate Nico extremely highly," said Wilkins. "That's the important bit; if your peers are rating you extremely highly."

Anelka, 30, is now seen as a role model and an example for his teammate, Daniel Sturridge, to follow, according to Wilkins. The encouraging form of the young striker was a factor in why Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, is yet to delve into the transfer market despite losing Drogba and Salomon Kalou to the African Cup of Nations. Sturridge, 20, was lured from Manchester City in the summer when his contract expired. He may eventually cost £7 million (Dh42m), but if he fulfils his potential then it will be a bargain.

"If Daniel can go on to be a player of Nicolas's class, then he'll be one helluva player," added Wilkins. "He's got two great teachers in Nicolas and Didier, so he is progressing in his own special manner and he's looking good. He's very quick, he's got a lot of potential, and it's now down to hard work and putting it into progress to see how far he goes." Anelka and Sturridge's sharpness and understanding were a particular feature of Chelsea's routine 2-0 win over Preston in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Anelka notched his 11th goal of the season and Sturridge his third in the last two starts. Their form should be enough for Ancelotti to resist the temptation to rush Drogba back following the Ivory Coast's exit from the tournament in Angola. If he retains his spot, Sturridge will line up against Birmingham, the club his father, Michael, was a professional at under Sir Alf Ramsey. Sturridge will also be reunited with Joe Hart, the Blues keeper who is on loan from Manchester City, Sturridge's former employers. They played for England at junior levels and now the senior team beckons for both.

Hart is already in Fabio Capello's thoughts for this summer's World Cup finals. His heroics ensured the Boxing Day meeting between these two sides ended in a goalless draw and that result, coupled with their remarkable 15-match unbeaten run, will see Birmingham arrive at Stamford Bridge in confident mood. Alex McLeish, their astute manager, attributes their club-record sequence to team spirit and that is why he is loath to change a winning side and introduce new midfield signings Michel and Craig Gardner.

"Individually you can have one or two mavericks in the team that can win you games, but they won't win you as many games as when you've got a dressing room that has got the power that is in mine," said McLeish. Chelsea v Birmingham, KO 11.45pm, ShowShasha 3

Published: January 27, 2010 04:00 AM

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