One of the toughest decisions England manager Roy Hodgson has to make throughout this World Cup qualifying campaign and, perhaps, beyond, is who his first choice left back is.
In one corner you have a solid, established English footballing legend, and in the other you have one of the most in-form players in the Premier League at the moment, who is improving by the game.
It is important when weighing up a situation such as this that club rivalry bias does not alter people’s opinions. Ashley Cole is one of the least popular players England have produced in recent memory while Baines is a likeable, down to earth lad from Liverpool, but that is completely irrelevant when it comes to picking your best player in a certain position.
In Warsaw tonight, Cole looks likely win his 99th cap for England, and in some people’s opinion he is the finest full back to have ever represented his country. Only the likes of Ray Wilson, Terry Cooper, Phil Neal and Gary Neville deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the 31 year old.
As part of England’s ‘golden generation’, he has been the only player who has performed consistently well at international level, with his best displays coming in the biggest games. Who could forget his performance against Portugal in Euro 2004, where his thwarting of a young Cristiano Ronaldo remains one of the most impressive defensive displays by an Englishman.
While not the most naturally gifted attacking full back around there is nobody you would rather rely on in a huge game. While the likes of Dani Alves, Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao are more explosive players, none are as efficient and consistent as Cole. A perfect example of this were his displays in the latter stages of Chelsea’s heroic Champions League triumph, where he was exceptional in containing Alexis Sanchez and Arjen Robben, against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively. Players of this calibre are capable of tearing people apart but Cole revels in these moments.
Many players begin to suffer more injuries and a loss of pace as they hit their thirties, but Cole is showing no signs of slowing up and looks as fresh now as he did at 25. Barring injury, he will almost certainly make the plane to Brazil in 2014, even as he approaches his 34th birthday.
But what of his rival, and major threat to his place in the starting eleven?
Leighton Baines is a player who, had he played at a different time, perhaps during the days of Graeme Le Saux for England, would have many England caps to his name already. Much like how Jamie Carragher had John Terry and Rio Ferdinand to contend with, and Robbie Fowler had to try and oust Alan Shearer for the number nine spot, Baines has had a player thought of as the best in the world in his position as competition.
At 27, Baines is in his absolute prime, and his form over the last year or so backs up that theory. As mentioned previously, he has been the standout defender in the Premier League so far this season, combining reliable defensive work with classy attacking bursts. His final ball is almost always spot on, while his set piece delivery is second to none. Add to that an eye for goal and it’s clear to see why so many are tipping him to replace Cole in the near future.
He was inexplicably left out of England’s 2010 World Cup squad in place of Stephen Warnock, which probably set him back a year or two. Rumours of homesickness were touted as the reason for his omission, which can be the only logical reasoning behind it. Probably the biggest thing working against Baines is that he is yet to be fully tested for England in a game of real magntitude, and at times his performances have not mirrored those for Everton. You have to be given the chance to prove yourself at some point though, and Baines is nearer than ever to getting this opportunity.
So what would you do if you were Hodgson?
If it all goes down to current form then Baines is the clear favourite, not that Cole has been playing remotely poorly. Many argue that a player should get into any side on merit, not by reputation, and some feel that this is the case at the moment. Does Hodgson have it in him to omit a player of such stature?
If experience is the key to the decision then Cole is the obvious choice. He has won everything there is to win at club level, including three Premier League titles and a record-breaking seven FA Cups. Hodgson has to weigh up whether this vast level of success and winning mentality is too important to replace or not.
As of this point it looks as though Cole will come back into the side for what is a very tough away trip to Poland, suggesting that he still sees Cole as his number one. This is the correct decision personally, but Baines should not feel too disappointed. For the first time in Cole’s career his place is under serious threat and it will be fascinating to see how he performs under such pressure. He knows that one of two slip ups will hand Baines the opportunity he so craves.
Between now and the 2014 World Cup, presuming England qualify, it will be a wonderful battle for supremacy between two outstanding left backs in their own right. Who would you choose: the king, or the pretender to the throne?