Matt Oldfield

The 2009/10 season could well be the most significant and difficult of Joe Cole’s career. After eight frustrating months out through injury, Cole is back and with the unenviable task of breaking into two in-form, unbeaten teams – first Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea and then Fabio Capello’s England side. With a World Cup looming and a club contract running out, it’s make-or-break time for arguably England’s most gifted footballer. Will Joe Cole return the same player? Cruciate knee problems are notoriously lengthy and hard to recover from, both physically and mentally. Ultimately does Cole have the time, talent and determination to recover his form and fitness in time to maintain his top-level career?

Cole’s assistant manager at Chelsea, Ray Wilkins, certainly thinks so: “He’s a much stronger footballer now. He’ll be a bit ring rusty, but he’s put so much work in it’s lovely to see him back”, he told the media. “He will give us something different as well. The World Cup is a lovely carrot for him – to work back into Fabio’s reckoning. A fully fit Joe Cole will be very much around the England squad.” Encouraging words for Cole but will the Chelsea attacker find the first-team football necessary to find his fitness?

Midfielders are one thing the London club have in abundance, and Chelsea’s formation has changed. Wide men do not really feature in Ancelotti’s plan. Luckily for Cole he is more than comfortable in a central role but he has competition for the spot spearheading the midfield diamond. And not just any old competition; Cole must battle with world-class, in-form players such as Deco and Florent Malouda. Chelsea have started the season with six wins out of six and so returning players are unlikely to slot straight into the first-team. Ancelotti has rotated his midfielders well so far but Cole needs to be starting consistently not occasionally if he wishes to make Capello’s World Cup squad.

The short-term answer for Cole may be a loan deal. Harry Redknapp has already registered interest in his former player and a move to a mid-table Premier League club would certainly increase the little wizard’s chances of being ready for South Africa. As shown with Michael Owen, Capello does not pick players on reputation alone, and Cole must prove that he is worthy of a place in the England squad.

What it is essential the midfielder have too is a long-term plan, however, as his future at Stamford Bridge is still uncertain. He has less than 12 months left on his contract and despite Chelsea’s transfer-ban, the club seem in no hurry to offer him the security of an increased deal. Should Cole stay and fight for a contract and risk missing out on South Africa, or should he prioritise first-team football? It is a difficult decision but one that the player must make sooner rather than later. At 27, Cole is reaching his peak and needs to take every opportunity that comes his way.

As Wilkins suggests, a fully-fit Joe Cole still has a role to play for England. However, his starting role on the left-wing has been taken by Steven Gerrard, who seems to be enjoying the freedom of the wide position. Seemingly incapable of partnering Frank Lampard in the centre, Gerrard looks far more comfortable linking up with Wayne Rooney in more attacking areas, moving infield to allow Ashley Cole room to push forward. The Liverpool star will be almost impossible to depose now, but luckily for Joe Cole, Capello does not seem totally happy with any of his reserve options.

Of those options, Aston Villa trio Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing are fighting to be next in line but none have cemented a place in England’s World Cup squad. It is almost as if Capello is waiting for Cole’s return. The Chelsea star undoubtedly has a lot to offer England, whether it be from the start or from the bench. The midfielder has always performed well for his national team, especially at the 2006 World Cup, where he was arguably England’s best player. As Wilkins says, Cole “has that bit of fantasy that can open up defences.” In an England squad heavy on strength, solidity and workrate, Cole’s touch of class will be invaluable.

With a bit of form and a lot of first-team football, Cole should make the trip to South Africa next summer. The Londoner’s technical ability has never been questioned – he is rightly considered to be England’s most skilful footballer – but Capello will need to be convinced that he is ready. Cole recently completed his Chelsea comeback in style on against QPR in the Carling Cup. In the absence of John Terry, Cole wore the captain’s armband and played the full 90 minutes, setting up Salomon Kalou’s winner to cap an impressive performance. After the game, Cole sent out a message to all: “I’m back now and it’s blinding.” Let’s hope so, Joe.

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Photo courtesy: Ryu Voelkel