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Football: HAT-TRICK NIC COMES OF AGE; MAN CITY 4, A.VILLA 1, AT CITY STADIUM Kev's incredible sulk goes from boring to scoring.

Byline: David McDonnell

KEVIN KEEGAN once famously said he would not swap Nicolas Anelka for any other player in the world.

It seemed a bold claim but, on the evidence of this stunning display, it's easy to see why.

The brooding young Frenchman single-handedly took Aston Villa apart with arguably his finest display since his pounds 10million move to City, a hat-trick complementing his extraordinary work-rate and clinical finishing prowess.

Not since his days as a prodigiously-gifted teenager with Arsenal has Anelka looked so menacing, and likely to score whenever in possession.

Perhaps, as Keegan has always insisted, the 24-year-old nomad has finally found his spiritual home in City.

If so, and if Anelka can keep up this extraordinary form, there is no reason why he cannot vindicate Keegan's faith in him and re-establish himself as one of the Premiership's top marksmen.

That two of Anelka's goals came from the penalty spot should not detract from a performance few players will be able to better this season.

He was alert and sharp from the start against Villa, always wanting the ball and willing to work hard for everything that came his way.

Such was his relentless energy, Anelka would no doubt have been happy to go on for another 90 minutes, had the final whistle not brought his masterclass to a close.

Anelka's latest girlfriend may have dumped him because his idea of a night out was a trip to Tesco and a night in sipping water and watching videos, but no-one could accuse this teetotal Buddhist of being boring on the football pitch.

And Keegan was equally thrilled with the performance of Steve McManaman, making his City debut following his switch from Real Madrid.

McManaman was superb and looked as though he had never been away.

Yet City's first Premiership victory at their majestic new stadium was hard-fought, despite the emphatic scoreline.

Marcus Allback found himself one-on-one with David Seaman in the second minute, but shot straight at the former England keeper.

And when Juan Pablo Angel shot into the side-netting from close range, it seemed only a matter of time before the visitors took the lead, which they duly did through the Colombian striker.

Lee Hendrie whipped in a cross from the left and the unmarked Angel had the time and space to power a header past Seaman.

Villa were in command, but a groin strain which forced captain Olof Mellberg out of the game ten minutes from half-time was the beginning of their demise.

Within three minutes of the restart City were level, McManaman's brilliance in sweeping past two defenders rewarded when Mark Delaney's outstretched arm caught the ball for a penalty. Anelka converted from the spot.

Two minutes later and City were ahead, Michael Tarnat blasting home a free-kick from just outside the area after Ronny Johnsen had fouled Anelka.

Villa were dealt a further blow when they lost their second centre-back, Johnsen being forced off with a pulled hamstring.

It meant a further reshuffle by boss David O'Leary, which City ruthlessly exploited. By now the Sky Blues were rampant, McManaman revelling in his free role and showing extraordinary vision, stamina and industry for a player who last started a game on May 11.

City extended their lead with Anelka again scoring from the spot with customary coolness after Sun Jihai had been tripped by Peter Whittingham.

Thereafter it could have been 5-1 or even 6-1, but for goal-line clearances by Alpay and Hendrie from Anelka and Trevor Sinclair respectively.

Anelka was deserving of his first hat-trick for City, which duly came in the 83rd minute. Tarnat charged down the ball, which spilled into the path of Anelka, who embarked on a surging run and after passing Alpay, drilled a right-foot shot low into the net.

Yet there were more tricks to come. McManaman's superb ball was cleverly flicked on by Anelka into the path of the ever-impressive Shaun Wright-Phillips. His goalbound shot was deflected then saved brilliantly by Thomas Sorensen - the only thing to go right all day for the Villa keeper.

Keegan hailed McManaman as his man of the match, and the former England international was worthy of high praise, but this afternoon belonged to Anelka.

He may have celebrated his hat-trick with no more than a bottle of Evian and a leisurely stroll around his local Tesco, but if he can carry on producing performances like that, Keegan and the City faithful won't mind a bit.

Boring? Far from it.

MAN CITY: Seaman, Jihai, Sommeil, Distin, Tarnat, Wright-Phillips, Barton (Sibierski 73), McManaman, Sinclair, Anelka, Wanchope (Reyna 82).

ASTON VILLA: Sorensen, Delaney, Mellberg (Alpay 37), Johnsen (Hadji 66), Samuel, Hendrie, McCann, Hitzlsperger, Whittingham, Angel (Dublin 76), Allback.




BLUE HEAVEN: Joey Barton, David Sommeil and Trevor Sinclair mob Michael Tarnat after he fired City's second goal; HEROIC GESTURE: Nicolas Anelka hails the City fans Pictures: BRADLEY ORMESHER; ANGEL: Delight after scoring
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 15, 2003
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