English ups and downs

Published : Dec 12, 2009 00:00 IST

After many months out of action, Joe Cole suddenly returned to the Chelsea team recently at Stamford Bridge, not on the left or right wing where he has been aligned for so many years but in his original position as playmaker in central midfield, opening up more options for national coach Capello.

Dramatic things are happening in English football. Sometimes quite strange. But the sudden surge of Chelsea has featured the triumphant return to his old territory of Joe Cole, and I can only hope that Fabio Capello, now that the World Cup draw has been made, has taken note of the fact. After many months out of action, Joe suddenly returned to the Chelsea team recently at Stamford Bridge, not on the left or right wing where he has been aligned for so many years but in his original position as playmaker in central midfield.

This was how as a junior he excited English soccer with his splendid shows for the West Ham youth team in the Youth Cup; which they won. I saw and admired him. Some insisted he had with all his skills, control and tricks a tendency towards “show boating”, perhaps he still has, but it is surely the flip side of his virtuosity.

He was still in teens when he made his debut for England in a friendly against Italy in Leeds. I saw that too; he had slightly mixed success. He cleverly made a goal but also gave one away when he lost the ball in possession. Chelsea took him across London and of course used him chiefly on the wings where he certainly had his moments. Even if, as a right footer, he had certain problems on the left, Jose Mourinho, alias “The Special One”, was sometimes very harsh on him, seeming to expect him both to galvanise the attack yet be back in defence. By and large, however, he played well enough to win places on the wings in the England attack.

Since the lurid but sometimes dazzling days of Paul Gascoigne, that attack had notoriously lacked a genuine playmaker. The dualism in central midfield, between Frank Lampard, Cole’s Chelsea team-mate, and Liverpool’s dynamic Steven Gerrard, overshadowed such needs but did not remove them. Using Lampard in the central midfield role and Gerrard notionally on the left wing has never to me seemed more than a rickety compromise.

To my surprise, however, the new Chelsea manager, Ancelotti from Milan, no sooner launched Cole with such acclaim than he kept him for some weeks in the background. In such circumstances you could hardly press his claim to a place in the England midfield.

But for the crucial game at Arsenal, thank goodness, Ancelotti had the sense to restore him and with great success. Cole in central midfield was as elusive and creative as we know he can be, coolly twisting away from tackles, cleverly stroking his passes. Surely Capello must realise that the return of Joe to his proper position and to such coruscating form gives him a splendid trump card for South Africa. At last, in a somewhat pedestrian team, a player capable, in the old Italian phrase, of “inventing the game”. We’ll see.

One also hopes that Capello will take on board the recent inspired form for Spurs of Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe, both excelling in a 9-1 home win over a bemused Wigan team. Yet, each with his pace, dynamism and drive, is all but irresistible. Lennon did just as he liked with the sad reserve left back Edman, once at Spurs himself, while Defoe scored no lower than five of the goals. Surely he must be first choice for an England attack which has relied so heavily on Wayne Rooney; and over-accommodated him by using Emile Heskey, so seldom a scorer and now not even an Aston Villa first choice, to become a sort of valet to him, “making space”. It could in this case take a tactical change of heart by Capello. But so be it. And we have seen that Defoe can score goals for England; not as, with respect, a rabbit killer such as Peter Crouch. Defoe, after all, got those vital goals in Holland against a supposedly competent defence.

Lennon must surely go to South Africa, but the vexed problem of David Beckham remains. He went at great expense, though he paid some of it himself, to the World Cup draw as a sort of pseudo icon. And I suppose it could be more or less as such that Capello will take him back to South Africa despite the abundance of younger, faster right wing talent available. There was much sympathy for him after his Los Angeles Galaxy team had lost the MLS Championship game against the distant outsiders, Salt Lake City. He was seen to be treating his asthma and he played foolishly, one feels, with no fewer than three pain-killing injections which had worn off long before the end. Unreported, however, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was the fact that his crude foul put out of the game the key Salt Lake playmaker, the Argentine, Javier Morales.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s bubble seemed well and truly burst when they lost 0-3 to Chelsea. Arsene Wenger, who seems in choleric mood now so much of the time, had some silly post match things to say. Such as insisting that Didier Drogba, who once again terrorised the Arsenal defence, did nothing else but score his two goals! This reminded me of the super prolific German striker Gerd Muller, whose choice as Sportsman of the Year incited the girl athlete Heidi Bosendahl to jealous fury. What else did Muller ever do, she cried, but hang around the penalty area and score goals? What else did he have to do?

Wenger’s problems have been exacerbated by the shocking injury to his one dangerous, powerful attacker, Robin van Persie, out for five long months after an injury playing for Holland against Italy. Like several other Premiership players he went to the Balkans for the new supposedly fashionable treatment with horse placenta from a Serbian doctor! Needless to say, though it seems the treatment may even have worked with certain Liverpool players. Van Persie’s injured ankle was in far too serious condition to be helped.

Without him, Arsenal show no real threat up front, just a bunch of clever, pretty players who wilt when coming up against a defence like Chelsea’s, and John Terry. Moreover, the Gunners, for all their gifts, are being accused of failing to defend set pieces, and failing to exploit their own. Strikers such as Carlos Vela and Eduardo simply haven’t the weight and strength to do what Van Persie so effectively does and what mutinous, rowdy Adebayor (ask his long suffering neighbours in the gentle North West London suburb of Belsize Parks) provided last season.

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