The business end of the Premier League is upon us and it’s normally at this time in a World Cup year that players either make or break their chances of making the England squad.
There are bound to be a couple of shock inclusions, as well as some outrageous exclusions, but there is no doubt of the two left-backs who have already booked their seat on the plane to Brazil: Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines.
Cole has been England’s first choice left-back for the best part of 13 years, picking up an impressive 106 caps in the process. Part of that was because he was by far England’s best player in that position, and arguably the best left-back in the world on his day.
But in recent months, Cole’s Chelsea career has taken a turn for the worse as he sits by and watches Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta enjoy a successful run in the first-team under Jose Mourinho.
His England career appears to have suffered along with that, which has given Everton’s Leighton Baines the opportunity to make England’s left-back position his own ahead of the World Cup.
Baines’ consistency for Everton and his solid performances in each of the 22 caps he has picked up for England has made him the more favourable option at left-back for many fans, as well as manager Roy Hodgson.
Although Cole has arguably been the better of the two players for many years, Baines has fast become the player of choice thanks to his dead ball ability alone.
Furthermore, his creativity completely outweighs Cole’s, which has been evident already this season. The Everton defender has created 24 goal-scoring chances in 19 Premier League outings, while Cole has only 10 in 13 matches.
Baines is also four years younger, which could work in his favour ahead of the World Cup. It is no secret that Cole has not been at his best for Chelsea for some time and that has been reflected in his struggle to win back his starting berth ahead of Azpilicueta. The lack of football for him this season will certainly count against him when Hodgson begins weighing up his best XI.
England’s World Cup story could well end the way in which we all expect. Struggle through the group stage, win by the odd goal in the second round and then crash out painfully on penalties in the quarter-finals.
What we will be desperate for in Brazil is as many penalty takers on the pitch as usual – and there are not many England players who would choose ahead of Baines to take a spot-kick. Whereas Cole’s penalty shocker in the shoot-out defeat to Italy in the European Championship 2012 proves there is little hope of being able to trust him with a World Cup winning penalty, should it ever get that far.
Both Chelsea and Everton meet in the Premier League this Saturday and it could be an interesting battle between England’s left-back hopefuls if Cole is preferred over Azpilicueta.
If he isn’t, then Baines may just have one foot on the plane to Rio as Hodgson’s first choice left-back. That said, the current form for both players suggests that might be the case anyway, regardless of how often Cole plays between now and June.