Jim White

Cole is out. What now?

Jim White

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And so it happens again. The curse has struck. After Beckham in 2002 and Rooney in 2006, once more one of England's few world class performers has been compromised by injury ahead of the World Cup. That clash with Landon Donovan at Goodison on Wednesday night could have repercussions all the way to Rustenburg. If Ashley Cole is not around when the World Cup gets underway, England will be shorn of their second most potent performer.

It is not easy to make a case to praise Cole. His personality usually gets in the way of any eulogy. Uppermost in the mind is the obnoxious snarl, the noisy bragging of his monetary worth, the shabby treatment of the nation's sweetheart, the mobile phones. But the fact is anyone who saw his performance against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge the other week, would have to acknowledge that right now he is the best left-back in the world. Bar none. As an attacking force he is beguiling, as a defender he is quick, sharp, agile. As a tactician, he grows by the game. Or rather he did before Donovan's unfortunate interception.

Recalling the farce surrounding Sven-Goran Eriksson's selection of a half-fit Beckham and Rooney in the last two championships, Fabio Capello has categorically stated that he will not contemplate taking anyone to South Africa who is not fit and functioning for their clubs. Cole's most optimistic date of return is around the Champions League final. In other words, he is out of the tournament. Far from being one of the brightest individuals on display, come the World Cup he will be just another bloke in plaster, watching at home on the telly.

Which leaves Capello with a problem: the replacements for Cole are not anywhere near his league.

Inevitably, the news of Cole's demise has been greeted in the tabloids as the next plot development in the John Terry saga. Now Wayne Bridge is in the frame. Will he play or will he refuse? And if he does, what will that do to dressing room harmony? How will the new skipper Rio Ferdinand deal with the scrapping former beaux of the Chelsea slapper?

Except, even without the added consequence of that unhappy duplication of romantic liaisons, Capello must have had doubts that Bridge was good enough to play in the World Cup. Watch his contribution for City and he seems incapable of ever finding a man wearing the same colour shirt. Compared to Cole his passing is woeful, his tackling sporadic, his attacking play lacking in ambition. Surely there must be a better option as cover for Cole than Bridge. In truth, it is not just in his love life that Bridge finds himself at the back of a long queue.

No one could claim Capello is spoiled for choice in his search for an understudy for Cole. Neither Stephen Warnock nor Leighton Baines, the two specialist left backs in the frame, announce themselves as much more compelling candidates than Bridge. Gareth Barry can play there, but is a little slow and, in any case, is needed to plug the Owen Hargreaves-sized hole in the midfield. Joleon Lescott can cover there, but his form since he moved to City has not insisted he have a place in the squad at all. Perhaps the best bet is James Milner, a willing work horse with a magnificent aptitude and attitude who is prepared to play anywhere for the cause.

Either that or Capello puts Wayne Rooney there. The way the United forward hared back into defence to tackle Ashley Young in the last minute of the game against Villa in midweek suggests that now Cole is out of the picture, he is probably a better prospect at left-back than any of the potential replacements for Cheryl's other half. Which rather sums up Capello's problem.

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