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English Premiership

Praying for a rusty Anelka

SUNDERLAND, May 23 – Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia is hoping France striker Nicolas Anelka has a rare off-day when he meets his old friend in Sunday's relegation decider at the Stadium of Light.NICHOLAS_ANELKA_2Sbragia, who coached Anelka when the pair were at Bolton, craves a win against Chelsea to guarantee Premier League survival for Sunderland.

So he would be delighted to witness a subdued show from Anelka, although he knows how hard it will be to subdue the former Arsenal star.

Anelka has his own reason for wanting to find the target again as he aims to pip Christian Ronaldo and finish as the league’s top scorer.

Both are locked on 18 goals, but Ronaldo is likely to be rested by Manchester United when they play at Hull, leaving the door open for Anelka, who scored a hat-trick when Sunderland were beaten 5-0 at Stamford Bridge in November.

Sbragia said: "I keep in touch with Nicolas. He’s a lovely lad and I’ve sent him a couple of messages this week telling him to keep his scoring boots at home on Sunday.

"I know he’ll be a real threat to us because he’s such a dangerous player to handle and we’ll have to be very wary of him for the 90 minutes.

"He was an excellent player at Bolton and a good lad as well. Before he came there was a lot of speculation about him, but once you’ve met him you realise he’s a completely different person to how he’s made out.

"He bought into the system at Bolton and scored a lot of vital goals before he got a good move and the club made some good money by selling him."

Although Chelsea face Everton next weekend in the FA Cup final, Anelka is likely to start because Blues boss Guus Hiddink wants his players to keep their rhythm.

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Hiddink explained:"I don’t want to rest a lot of people because they need to maintain their physical shape and also the way we want them to play. If I rest too many people then I don’t think it’s good preparation for Wembley.

"There is always a risk of injuries, but when players are committed the risk is minimal.
"Plus, I like them to be in a good rhythm and I don’t favour giving them time off because the rhythm and intensity will go down – and we will need a lot of intensity in the cup final."

Chelsea’s determination to finish their league campaign in style will make life even more difficult for Sunderland, who have won only once in 12 games and plunged down the table since occupying 10th position in February.

Now they will go down if they lose while Newcastle and Hull win – and Sbragia has left his players in no doubt what is at stake.

He said: "They’re playing for Sunderland’s future. And, if they want to be Premier League players, they’ve got to address that on Sunday.

"We’ve had umpteen chances to get out of trouble and not taken any of them and that’s frustrating.

"This is it now, there are no second chances after Sunday. We must take this one. When I took the job we were in a sticky situation and it was my job to keep us up and I still believe we will be in the Premier League after Sunday."

If Sbragia succeeds in his aim, Kenwyne Jones is likely to remain at the club; if they go down, the striker has already indicated he will want to leave.

He finds reason for optimism in Sunderland’s form against the leading teams.

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Jones said: "We’ve done pretty well at home against the top four. Nobody has battered us.
"No one has given us a chance and we’re already the underdogs so all we can do is go out and give it a big effort.

"You can’t think of all the different scenarios just before you go out because you won’t focus on the game, and you put too much pressure on yourself.

"The most we can do is go and play the game and then what happens afterwards, happens."

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