As the season got underway, the choice for the England left back position was always going to be who was going as back up to Ashley Cole. The Chelsea player had his old mentor Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge and all seemed on course for Cole to cement his starting berth with a successful season. All was going as planned until just before Christmas, a couple of lacklustre performances saw points dropped, with Cole following suit. A short spat followed as the player was rumoured to have attended an Arsenal Christmas party just before a vital league clash between the clubs. In stepped nominal right back Cesar Azpilicueta and the Spaniard has not looked back since. Cole has been relegated to the side lines, and although he looked a ‘shoo-in’ for the squad just a few months ago, it now appears that the Mourinho ‘boot’ has put his place in severe peril. The player who had been a stalwart performer throughout the qualifying competition, replete with his 106 caps and masses of top level experience, may not get a ticket to ride unless he can regain his first team place at Chelsea.
In the recent friendly against Denmark, Hodgson rested Baines and gave a half each to Cole and Southampton’s tyro, Luke Shaw. As auditions go, both shone, but Cole’s extra defensive dimension as a case-hardened tournament player may yet prove decisive. “Old King Cole” may be in danger of being usurped by the new kid on the block, as Shaw steps up to the plate, but it may not be as simple as that.
Everton’s Leighton Baines has been the ‘coming man’ for some while now, but despite many outstanding performances, he has yet to displace the excellent Cole in any meaningful games. He brings an added extra to the team with his dead ball ability but is there the assurance that Cole offers when exposed to the cleverest of forwards? In the recent friendly against Chile, he was duped by Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez for one of the goals. World Cup football is a fairly unforgiving testing ground, especially for defenders, and Baines’ lack of experience – compounded by his ‘homesickness’ comments before the 2010 squad selection, may be a siren warning to Hodgson. Baines was advocated as the first player that new Manchester United manager David Moyes would seek to be reunited with after his move to Old Trafford. The call never seemed to come however, and now the ex-Everton boss seems to be looking at Luke. Has the ‘coming man’ missed his time, as Shaw looks like the player next in line?
In the same international friendly as Cole restated his case, Shaw’s second half performance was full of promise, and once he gains a few games under his belt, the position could be sewn up for a decade, very much as Cole has done to date. At season’s start, Shaw was a promising player, but in his 26 appearances for the Saints to date, he has shown how far his development has progressed. Come the summer it’s likely that he will be the hottest of hot properties in the transfer market with both Manchester clubs and Chelsea vying for his services. The player whose ambitions may not have been beyond the U21 national set up for this season now has much broader horizons in front of him. As with Baines, his international experience is limited. Aside from that 45 minutes against Denmark, his caps for the junior team comprise the total to date. With exuberance and youth on his side however, that is unlikely to stay the way for long.
Conventional wisdom says that Baines will go to Brazil as first choice, with Shaw likely to be his back up. Personally, I don’t think it’s that clear. England’s back line is likely to contain a particularly new centre-back partnership, probably Cahill and Jagielka, neither of whom can claim a solid bank of tournament experience. Will Hodgson be prepared to throw the untested Baines in on the flank? It’s a question that he will surely ponder.
I, for one, would not be surprised if the manager reaches out to the tried and tested – and perhaps significantly, well-rested – Cole, with Shaw as back up. It would be severely harsh on Baines, who could end up labelled as the ‘coming man who never really arrived.’ The World Cup tournament however is not a place for a naïve defensive unit, and the manager will be tempted to trust Cole in such circumstances, especially if he gets half-a-dozen games or so in the first team before the end of the season as injuries and the inevitable wear and tear take its toll on the Chelsea squad.
It’s always possible of course that an injury will take the decision out of Hodgson’s hands, but unless that happens, there’s going to be a circle to square for the manager. If selected, it would almost definitely be Cole’s last World Cup, and Baines’ only one. Shaw could be the biggest gain however if selected. This guy could avoid England managers having to reprise Hodgson’s dilemma for a few years to come.
Who do you think Hodgson will take to Brazil? Is it a year too early for Luke Shaw? Are Ashley Cole’s England days now behind him? Does Roy have confidence in Baines’ defensive ability?
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