Ashley Cole is man not too used to competition, especially when it comes to the England national team. The left back has been first choice for both club and country for the best part of thirteen straight years, and in that time no one at Arsenal, Chelsea or England has come close to dethroning him.
Having been considered one of the best in his position for the majority of his career, it isn’t hard to see why. But at the ripe old age of 33, Cole’s starting spot is starting to come under threat, and even start to slip away from him.
Despite his age, Cole has kept himself as fit as his understudies, appearing recently in a Nike boot promotion where he stated how hungry he still is for the game and how he’s being kept on his toes by the all the youngsters around him. Even though the Chelsea man has almost certainly fully entered the twilight stage of his impressive career, performances for club and country over the past two seasons have been as good as ever.
Eyebrows were raised aplenty when the returning José Mourinho began to field Chelsea’s second choice right back, César Azpilicueta ahead of Cole in the left back position, and it all seemed very temporary. But to the surprise of many, since getting dropped the former Arsenal man is finding himself on the bench every week. Given how important Cole has been and still is to the Blues it comes as something of a surprise to say the least.
Of course it isn’t the first time Mourinho has dropped a seemingly ‘un-droppable’ player. In his final season at Real Madrid he resigned club captain and legend Iker Casillas to the bench in favour of relative novice Diego Lopez. It’s a maddening thought to many, even now, that Casillas could be dropped for anybody, but Mourinho’s decision to do so in favour of Lopez has been backed up by current Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti who has carried on where Mourinho left off, with Lopez ahead of Casillas.
Mourinho’s decision to drop Cole for Azpilicueta looked almost as mad, but boy has it paid off. The Spaniard has risen from squad player to one of the league’s finest fullbacks. After some extremely impressive performances at left back, including victories against Liverpool, Man United, Man City and Tottenham, ‘Dave’ (as the Chelsea fans know him) has cemented his place in the side as Chelsea’s defence lead the way with the fewest goals conceded in the league.
After beating Tottenham 4-0 at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho said in an interview that Azpilicueta was ‘unbeatable’, which is great news for Chelsea, but not so great news for Cole.
With the World Cup looming, Ashley Cole has now been out of Chelsea’s regular side for four months, and if that continues, which looks more the likely given the very impressive form of Azpilicueta, Cole looks set to lose his England place as well. Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson has resisted the urge to play Leighton Baines in the big games, despite the nationwide buzz around the Everton man, as he usually trusts Cole against the best opponents (and why not?), but now with Cole having hardly played it looks like his England place is in serious jeopardy.
Baines has been the first serious challenger to Cole’s dominance of the left back position and now he looks set to take over, but having played very little international football against tough opposition (and looking somewhat exposed and out of depth in the few big games he has featured in), and having never featured in a competitive tournament for England, one tends to wonder if Azpilicueta’s fine form will damage England’s chances at the World Cup – especially if Cole is indeed dropped for Baines.
Baines is extremely highly rated in England, but he’s yet to show any sort of class on the big stages against the best teams for club and country, although the World Cup might just be the platform where he puts that right. Only time will tell.
Either way, the battle for the left back position is an interesting one and looks a little one-sided at the moment. There is even talk of taking Southampton rising star Luke Shaw to Brazil instead of Cole. But Cole’s experience will be needed more than anything. There are very few England players left who have played in more than one international tournament, so guidance from the likes of Cole, Gerrard and Lampard is vital for England’s generally young and inexperienced squad. And let’s not forget, a few months on the side-lines doesn’t destroy a player. As we saw against Denmark, Ashley Cole is still a more than capable option for England, and Hodgson has a tough decision to make come the end of the season.
If Azpilicueta continues to shine and continues to keep Cole out of Chelsea’s side, the argument to play him over Baines will be an almost impossible one by the summer. Cole is still without any doubt a world class left back, but with only a handful of games remaining in the season, Cole’s chances to impress Hodgson are running out fast.