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Manchester City 4, Aston Villa 1.

Byline: By Simon Stone

Manchester City boss Kevin Keegan believes Nicolas Anelka can become the best striker in the world.

It was only days ago that Anelka spoke of his happiness and contentment at City after a career littered with enough fall-outs to see the Frenchman dubbed "The Incredible Sulk".

Yesterday the club record pounds 13.5m signing fired home the first hat-trick of his Blues career.

It not only sent City soaring above Chelsea into third spot but also saw him leapfrog Teddy Sheringham, Michael Owen and Thierry Henry at the top of the Barclaycard Premiership scoring charts.

"People forget Nicolas is only 24," said Keegan. "I was 27 before I learned what the game was all about.

"If he can continue to develop at the same rate over the next three years, by the time he reaches his peak he can go on to become the best striker in the world.

"He can do things I haven't seen very often during all my time in the game. His change of pace is exceptional and there is so much more in him.

"He knows there are things he can do better, especially his finishing, but he is already up there with the very best."

Anelka's efforts took the headlines away from Steve McManaman's return to English football after a four-year stint with Real Madrid and, more importantly, overturn the half-time lead given to Villa by Juan Pablo Angel's controversial opener.

The Colombian frontman appeared to be offside when he rose to nod home Lee Hendrie's cross, but any home resentment at referee Mark Halsey was wiped away after the interval when he awarded City two penalties, both of which Anelka confidently converted. In between, Michael Tarnat had found the target with a free-kick, although Villa keeper Thomas S0rensen will be disappointed at the way the German's shot seemed to slip through his fingers.

"Thomas knows himself it was a mistake," said Villa boss David O'Leary, who now finds his team in the bottom half of the table.

Both managers agreed that the loss of defensive duo Olof Mellberg and Ronny Johnsen contributed to Villa's second-half capitulation.

O'Leary though was big enough to accept the margin of victory didn't flatter the home side. "We can't afford to give goals away like we did in the second half," he said.

With the game secure at 3-1, Anelka remained a man on a mission, wasting a couple of good chances to finish off his hat-trick before finally winning himself the match ball after latching on to Tarnat's through-ball. "How can anyone not be happy here?" said Keegan as he reflected on Anelka's new-found contentment.

"We have superb training facilities, we respect the players and do everything we can to help them express themselves on match day. The fans and the stadium are magnificent and though there might be some clubs who have achieved more than we have, there are not many with better facilities."

McManaman excelled on his Premiership return, and continued to prompt the home side even when the scoreline went against them.

He did enough for Keegan to declare him man-of-the-match despite Anelka's personal haul and declared himself satisfied.

"Nicolas and I add to the experience here," he said.

"We have a team full of internationals and successful players and it helps the youngsters.

"I played in centre midfield. Whether that is the perfect role or whether I play further up who knows, but at least we gave the fans something to think about."
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Title Annotation:Sport Football
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 15, 2003
Words:584
Previous Article:F1: Title in hero's sights.
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