Luke Shaw is the future – but Ashley Cole’s history cannot be ignored

The Rio Report

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Roy Hodgson was as fair as he could have been to Ashley Cole on Wednesday night.

The Chelsea left-back has only made a handful of Premier League starts this season, with Jose Mourinho preferring to play Spanish right-back Cesar Azpilicueta on the left.

It has been an inspired selection, with Azpilicueta in the form of his life, transpiring to be a superior left-back to his so-called natural position. Who’d have thunk it.

Cole paid the price for an injury and a dip in form, but he is still a fantastic defender, an incredible competitor and a man you would trust in a one-on-one with Arjen Robben.

It is unfortunate for Cole that, having been the only serious English option at left-back for some years, he is finding his omission from his club XI coincides with sudden, uncommon riches in the position.

Leighton Baines has matured into one of the best attacking left-backs in the world, which is incredible given he was a relatively late developer who only really came into his own in his mid-20s.

Had Wigan’s miracle rise not happened, the Latics academy product – who is not a naturally confident man – could easily have spent his career knocking around the lower leagues.

The rise of Baines, Everton’s equivalent to Denis Irwin means that, at 33, an out-of-favour Cole is rightly playing second fiddle to the man from Merseyside.

As such, 18-year-old Luke Shaw – and to a lesser extent Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs – have been touted as England’s second-choice left-back for Brazil.

Gibbs, with his injury-proneness and occasional defensive wanderlust, is behind Cole and Shaw in the pecking order; provided he is fit, he is likely to be the emergency option if two of the three are unavailable this summer.

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So it was with great interest that we watched Shaw make his England debut. Coming on at half-time, his first act was to show a turn of pace and accuracy in the tackle, followed by great composure to bring the ball out of defence.

Shaw is intelligent, mature, and physically commanding, boasting good pace, a strong running style and confidence with the ball. There is a touch of the young Gareth Bale about him, although obviously with a defensive outlook. He reads and understands the game well – on Wednesday he held a superior line to the far more experienced Glen Johnson.

There is no doubt that, provided he keeps his apparent level-headedness and avoids serious injury, Shaw has the potential to become one of the world’s best left-backs. He’s already in his country’s top three.

But it is hard not to make a case for Ashley Cole who, while much maligned, is arguably England’s greatest ever left-back.

Cole has lost a smidgeon of the pace that, in his late-20s prime, made him the smoothest operator in his position in the game. But he is still quick, still knows where to put himself and – despite his repeated omission at club level – was able to slip back into his groove after a few minutes blowing out the cobwebs.

Most importantly though, Cole has been the shining light in past disappointments for England; the one player who – as those around him are dragged down by the weight of the shirt, the burden of expectation – has risen to the challenge. Arjen Robben? Let him at me. Cristiano Ronaldo? Bring it. Cole is a fighter, a born warrior and – unlike his club team-mate who will remain nameless – does not seek to dominate the dressing room. All he wants to do is play, fight, win.

England face a battle just to get out of their group in Brazil. They will probably have to get results against both Uruguay and Italy to reach the knockout stages.

If Baines is injured, suspended or sick, should Hodgson put that kind of pressure on a callow youth like Shaw? Would it be beneficial to Shaw’s career if he was led to the open maw of hell by Luis Suarez?

If Shaw was a significantly better player than Cole, or if the choice was between the Saints man and Gibbs, for sure, take the teenager. But, as we saw on Wednesday, there is actually little to choose between the two, and with a whole career ahead of him, Shaw will have further opportunity.

But for now, Cole is one of the few England veterans whose past holds him in good stead. Let this be his swansong.

By Reda Maher – on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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