Wide wonder Cole

Joe Cole's (left) brilliant strike against Arsenal at Highbury (here he celebrates the goal with teammate Didier Drogba) is proof of his recent form in the wings for Chelsea.-AP Joe Cole's (left) brilliant strike against Arsenal at Highbury (here he celebrates the goal with teammate Didier Drogba) is proof of his recent form in the wings for Chelsea.

WHEN Jose `the Mouth' Mourinho, Chelsea's loquacious manager, recently called Joe Cole "untouchable" I believe we knew what he meant. It was part of a sustained eulogy in which he praised the way that Cole, in his view, had at last found his proper position on the flanks, though he did not fail to tell us how lacking in the past Cole had been in a variety of different aspects, which varied from his passing to his defensive qualities. All of which, I tend to suspect, was calculated to make us believe that Cole's allegedly dramatic improvement was owed to his perceptive and inspiring manager.

The little Londoner did not deny it, telling us how happy he was to be playing for Chelsea and Mourinho. And there is no doubt that his form on the flanks at the turn of the year has been ebullient. Witness the remarkable second goal he scored at Highbury against Arsenal when he not only surged past the opposing left-back Lauren from the right wing, but then for good measure cut across big Sol Campbell as if the England international were not there.

If you detect a faint note of scepticism in my tone, it is because I have been a huge admirer of Cole for so many years; since, in fact, I saw him scintillating in an FA Youth Cup final against Liverpool at Upton Park for the West Ham United team.

Can we now at last expect Sven-Goran Eriksson to use him regularly for England as Mourinho finally does at Chelsea? Till recently enough Cole has been frustratingly in and out of the England team. And he will have bitter memories of England's last two tournaments; 2002 in Japan when a seemingly paralysed Eriksson failed to bring him and his potential inspiration on in a quarterfinal where Brazil were reduced in the last half hour to ten men. And again, alas, two years later in Lisbon when England could so badly have done with his skills against Portugal.

Early last season, Mourinho was already damning him with faint praise; I remember being at Stamford Bridge for a game won 1-0 against Manchester United, when Cole came on as an attacking sub, to engineer the goal. After which, Mourinho proceeded to criticise him for not pulling his weight in defence!

To be honest, I do not see Cole as a natural winger, well though he has lately been doing as such. He isn't a flyer, he isn't the classic winger who goes whizzing past his man on the outside, hits the goal line and pulls the ball back into the box. But, in his own way, he is at least functioning out wide and at least, in Germany, he should be excused the torments of the bench.

In contrast to Cole, Luca Toni of Italy and Fiorentina was never a boy wonder. Like an encouraging number of Italian stars he had come the hard way. That is to say, he had been round and round Italy before he finally broke through as a major spearhead. Born near Modena, a giant of a centre forward standing 1.93 metres and weighing 88 kilos, he began with his local Modena club in division C1 with limited success — 25 appearances in his second season as a teenager, but only five goals. Not till season 2000-2001 did he finally reach Serie A with Vicenza, after spells in Serie C1 and B with Empoli (a mere three games and a single goal in B), Fiorenzuloa, Lodigiani and Treviso.

The following season Brescia bought him and 13 Serie A goals in 28 games seemed a reasonable haul. But he managed just two in 16 games the following season and went south to Sicily and Palermo. There, in Serie B again, it all happened suddenly; a tremendous haul of 30 goals in 45 games and a return to Serie A where he got another 20 in 35 games and won his first cap for Italy in August 2002, appropriately in Palermo.

Fiorentina took him to Florence this season where he has been banging in more goals than any other striker. But ever modest, he refused any comparison with the La Viola's Argentine hero Gabriel `Batigol' Batistuta, free scoring idol of the fans, so prolific that they even put up a statue to him. Meanwhile Toni, linking well with Milan's Alberto Gilardino, has given Italy fresh menace in attack. Toni is now 27.

Almost as tall as Toni, but four kilos lighter and some four years younger, is Sweden's Zlatan Ibramovich. Born in Malmo of immigrant parents, he is more than likely to trouble the England defence in that World Cup group. Very much a law unto himself, always ready to try new tricks and, as he showed in Euro 2004 against Italy in Porto, well able to bring them off, he has been a major force this season with Juventus and their powerful bid for yet another Championship. In 2001, he left Malmo for Ajax of Amsterdam, where he made only a gradual impact — just half a dozen goals in his initial season, 13 each in the two that followed. But once he moved to Turin at the start of last season, goals came in spades; 16 in 35 Serie A matches. And they are coming this season, too. England beware!

Apropos of Cole and Mourinho, however, it should be recalled that scarcely had the Chelsea manager eulogised Cole than, immediately after his team's 2-0 home win over struggling Birmingham, he was castigating him, although some reporters thought Cole the best player on the field. Not Mourinho, who threatened, "One more game like that and you'll be dropped," adding, "He was playing for himself and not the team," then giving Cole four days off, presumably so that he might repent at leisure!

You wonder, meanwhile, whether Julio Ceasar, the keeper who this season has replaced Italy international Francesco Toldo in the Inter goal, may even displace Dida in Brazil's goal in Germany.

He has already been capped and looks hugely competent in every aspect.