Nicolas Anelka has started the new season in style. After sparkling performances in France's 1-1 draws with Romania and Serbia in 2010 FIFA World Cup South AfricaTM qualifying, he then hit the only goal in Chelsea's defeat of Porto in their UEFA Champions League opener last week.
"Everyone was talking about Didier (Drogba) being out and us needing players like Nico to step up to the plate, and he did that," said Blues captain John Terry in the wake of Anelka's match-clinching performance against the Portuguese heavyweights.
Those sentiments were echoed by Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, who is perhaps the main reason behind the striker's fine start to the season. "I am very happy for him because he is doing very well now," said the Italian. "Anelka is a great player."
That praise is richly deserved. The much-travelled player has spent most of the last decade criss-crossing Europe in search of stability. After spells in Paris, Madrid, Manchester, Liverpool and Istanbul, a relaxed Anelka finally seems to have found contentment in west London. After putting Porto to the sword, the Frenchman spoke exclusively to FIFA.com, explaining the secret of his and Chelsea's recent success and what the future might hold for France.
FIFA.com: Nicolas, you set up the winner against Stoke City and scored the only goal against Porto a few days later. Things are going well for you right now...
Nicolas Anelka: Yes, they are, which is all the better for me. I've been through periods when things haven't been so good and I've had to be strong mentally. I'm enjoying this right now, though. It's so important to make your presence felt in big games. Porto played well and the last 20 minutes were pretty tough for us because we were tired. The goal was important for me but even more so for the club. It was our first Champions League match, we were at home, and we were up against a direct rival for qualification.
Everyone was worried about the absence of Didier Drogba but you managed to respond with a goal. How did you handle the situation?
It's good that we can win without him but it's even better when he's in the team (smiles). We miss him when he's not around. We miss his physical impact, and things are definitely different without him. I usually play behind him, in midfield almost. But on Tuesday I was up front on my own, not that that's anything new for me as I must have played about 15 games like that last season.
Carlo Ancelotti's two-forward system seems to have given you more freedom.
Yes, that's true. I am playing more freely now. I played with that system at Fenerbahce and it allows me to ask for the ball at my feet and to get up front with Didier at the same time. That's the position I prefer playing in because I can get more involved in the game. The more I get on the ball, the better I feel and the more I can express myself.
What has been the biggest change with Ancelotti?
He rotates the squad, which is new at Chelsea. Everyone gets to play a part and everyone is happy, even if they just get to play 20 minutes. We really like him as a coach and as a person too. You can feel that out on the pitch and you really want to work hard for him. He's laid back, he talks a lot and he knows exactly what he's doing. It makes things easier when you've got a coach like that, someone who's calm and who shows you that he's in control. He won the league and the Champions League with Milan. He's been there and done it.
A one hundred per cent record in all competitions and top of the league in England. You could not have hoped for a better start to the season...
We finished last season strongly too, and this is just a continuation because it's the same team. Not everything's been perfect though. We had our problems against Porto and Stoke [a 2-1 win in injury time]. Even so, it's always good to win difficult matches, which is something we didn't always do last season when we dropped a lot of points at home. We know we've got a great team but we also know we need to keep working if we want to win the league and the Champions League. It's a long way and it's going to be really tough. We have some big games coming up now. We'll know a little more then.
Let's turn to France now. You earned draws against Romania and Serbia but your chances of qualifying directly for South Africa 2010 have diminished. Was it a good or a bad week?
In terms of the way France played it was a positive week in my opinion. Sure, we didn't win either game and that's a shame but I think we deserved to win both of them. But if we have to go through the play-offs, then that's what we'll do. It's not a problem. The most important thing is getting to the World Cup. It won't be easy because anything can happen in a play-off, but we'll get there. We are confident. We know we have a great team and all we have to do is prove that on the pitch. That's what we've done in our last two matches, and all we need now is a little bit of luck in front of goal.