Congratulations have been pouring in for England left-back Ashley Cole on his fantastic achievement of reaching 100 international appearances with the iconic Three Lions emblazoned on his chest.
The Chelsea defender marked the occasion with a starting berth for England’s high profile friendly with Brazil.
To collect 100 caps for one’s country is an immense achievement for any player, and is testimony to their physical longevity, mental fortitude and ability to maintain a high level of form worthy of selection.
Cole made his England debut against Albania back in 2001 under Swedish coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson after his emergence through the ranks at Arsenal and ever since that night in Tirana has been arguably his country’s finest and most consistent performer.
Throughout the timespan of his international career, Cole has, until now at least, been relatively untroubled regarding competition for his place in England’s back four and this, combined to an enviable injury record, has enabled him to make the left-back spot his own.
However, what must be added, is that had there been any serious rivalry to take over from Cole, his qualities, particularly defensively, would almost certainly seen off any potential usurpers.
In many observers opinion, Cole has simply been the best left-back of his generation and those who have seen his performances for Arsenal, Chelsea and England would whole-heartedly concur.
Cole, one of England’s leading figures during the so-called and profoundly underachieving ‘Golden Generation’ which included the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry, can probably also claim to be the only member of this exalted group to have produced his best form when it mattered most – at the major tournaments.
As his teammates flattered to deceive and the country saw its team deflate before it’s every eyes, Cole was always the one to be relied upon to throw himself into every tackle or block to give the fans the merest hope of success at World and European championships.
Now that he has joined a very select band of players to make it to the 100 club for England, this should not be seen as the obituary to his career. Indeed, at 32 years old, and with a new contract tucked under his arm from Chelsea, there are still a couple of good years left in the legs yet both for club and country.
But with the clock ticking down, and England almost perpetually under-stocked with attacking left-sided players, it must be time to make Everton star Leighton Baines the first choice left-back in preparation for Brazil 2014.
Baines has progressed steadily from his time with Wigan Athletic and as an under-21 international, yet after a slow start to his time at Goodison Park, the last two years has seen the 28-year-old Scouser flourish into one of the most talked about players in the game.
His attacking instincts coupled with a magically gifted left foot delivery from both open play and set-pieces and an eye for goal not often associated with full backs, gives manager Roy Hodgson something England has patently lacked even accounting for Cole’s considerable talent.
The argument for the continuation with Cole is that his form has not diminished with age and all of his accomplishments have been done at the very highest level, while the merits of Baines have yet to be put under the same intense scrutiny.
For those who believe that Baines’ time has come, they will point to the fact that he is now entering the peak of his career and that England should take advantage of that. They will also insist that while Cole may be a better defender, Baines has the upper hand when it comes to taking the game to the opposition, and that when England have really needed something different at a tournament they have been found sorely wanting.
Baines also represents his nation’s best left sided attacker, period. If you look at statistics throughout European football’s top leagues, he is one of the leading threats in world football and as such, it would be sheer folly to continue leaving such a weapon out of the starting XI.
Ashley Cole is hardly ready for the scrapheap yet and still has much to offer his country, but if England are serious about challenging for the next World Cup then Leighton Baines must play. His energy and vitality could be the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that has been missing for too many years.