Chinese challenge is Anelka's biggest
Nicolas Anelka's move to China was always an unpredictable adventure but one win in six games and the manager's uncertain fate have left him with an uphill challenge in the rollercoaster Super League.
The ex-Chelsea striker's big-money move was supposed to herald a new start for Shanghai Shenhua, bankrolled by colourful video-game mogul Zhu Jun, who also brought in experienced French manager Jean Tigana.
But a slow start to the season and the toothpick-chewing Tigana quickly came under fire, apparently headed for the exit as trigger-happy Shenhua's ninth managerial change in just six years.
With Anelka named player-coach -- his first such role in the game -- the man famously nicknamed "Le Sulk" for his surly demeanour must now turn around the club and convince an increasingly sceptical fan base.
Even Shenhua's players have pointed out that this time last season, the team had 11 points rather than five, and without the services of a former international striker on a reported $307,000 a week.
"We are doing no better than we were this time last year," veteran midfielder Jiang Kun remarked last week.
The row over Tigana, whose position is unclear after he was absent for last week's home defeat to Tianjin, has not helped the atmosphere at Hongkou Stadium in Shanghai's north.
According to Chinese media, Tigana, who has denied quitting, and the club are locked in a legal battle over compensation.
"A team must revolve around someone," said Peng Hao, a sports journalist for Yahoo China. "In a club like Shenhua, which doesn't have lots of stars, it wasn't clear if this person was Anelka or Tigana so something had to be done."
Sections of the Chinese media reported Anelka had criticised Tigana's tactical approach, undermining his fellow Frenchman.
Having been at the centre of France's mutiny at the last World Cup, was Anelka up to his old tricks again, disrupting team management and squad harmony?
"Tigana should have been given more time, the media made everything seem to be about Anelka, this has made the Chinese players feel less important and they have lost the motivation to play," said long-time supporter Bobby Lu.
"He's lazy and uninspired on the pitch to be honest, with the situation worsening, I fear Shenhua will be relegated. It's a horror show now."
Lu's remarks are on the pessimistic end of the spectrum but there are signs mainstream opinion is beginning to shift against Anelka, Shenhua's captain, as the team languishes third from bottom.
While postings on social networks are starting to question the Anelka experiment, the starkest evidence is at Hongkou Stadium, where the attendance was down to 11,000 last Friday, a drop of 10,000 from their previous game.
Anelka himself has been shuffled around between defensive midfield, up front, on the wing and in his favoured "second striker" position in a baffling array of tactical approaches.
Now the 33-year-old faces what he describes as the biggest challenge of his career -- stopping the rot and moulding an inexperienced group of players into a team capable of winning the increasingly competitive Super League.
"The team is very young and, apart from the foreign recruits, lacks experience," Anelka, who rarely gives interviews, told France's Le Journal du Dimanche. "We're starting from zero, or near enough.
"I adapt, have discussions with developing players, and give them my experience. I had my first team talk (last week). I speak in English, the club translator explains my instructions in Chinese."
He added that he had a "very English" coaching philosophy, after his long career in the Premier League, and was enjoying Shanghai's architecture, restaurants and relative peace and quiet.
"I'm still discovering. I didn't mean to do this job. I've always said that my future wouldn't be in football. But I've got 17 years at a high level behind me, I know what the boys like," Anelka said.
"I've never written down in a notebook what's said in training sessions, but I've got everything in my head."
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