After several withdrawals through injury and a famous no-show, the England squad for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro appears decidedly weak, but there is one area where they do boast an abundance of talent.
At the moment, England are blessed with two exceptional left-backs in Chelsea’s Ashley Cole and Everton’s Leighton Baines, but of course, the obvious problem is only one of them can start.
Cole won his 100th England cap last month, has been a consistently brilliant performer, was once the best player in the world in his position, and arguably the only member of England’s fabled ‘Golden Generation’ to fulfill his potential on the international stage.
But the form and talent of Leighton Baines can no longer be so easily ignored, and it is becoming increasingly obvious he should take over from Cole as England’s first-choice left-back.
As defenders Cole and Baines are hard to separate; both are tenacious tacklers, quick, positionally astute and difficult to beat, but it is what they can offer going forward where Baines makes the most compelling argument for that No. 3 shirt.
If the Premier League is where players audition for a place in the England side, then Baines should certainly get the nod over Cole.
Just compare their statistics in this season. Who scores more goals? Baines by a comfortable 5-1 margin (and 7-1 in all competitions). Assists? Baines again, 4-2. And the gulf widens even further when comparing chances created, Baines is 93-16 ahead over Cole.
There was even a point earlier this season where Baines had created more chances than another player in not only the Premier League, but the whole of European football, and this was not just defenders, but included strikers and midfielders too.
For the past three seasons, he has comfortably finished in the top 10 for chances created in the Premier League, and he is destined to do so again this season.
Baines is a dead-ball specialist and offers a significantly greater goal threat than Cole. He can take penalties, which historically can prove useful to England, and just witness his incredible free-kick for Everton against Newcastle United in the Premier League in January.
On forays down the left flank, Cole is more likely to cut in side and lay off a pass, whereas Baines has the ability to whip crosses straight in to the penalty box with unerring accuracy.
Cole has never scored for England in his 100 appearances, whereas Baines has one already from his 14 caps.
The England manager Roy Hodgson is fully aware about the dilemma he has to solve.
“There will come a time when both are fit for an important match and I will have to disappoint one of them,” Hodgson said last month. “They will just have to fight it out and I’m sure the competition between them will be fierce. Then I’ll have to make a decision.”
“Leighton proved himself to me during the Euros and since then when he’s played a couple of games in Ashley’s absence. So he doesn’t have to do anything. He knows that he’s capable of playing for England at left-back.”
It seems harsh on Cole, but Baines, four years younger than the Chelsea man, is making an overwhelming case to replace him and be England’s left-back at the 2014 World Cup finals.