These are worrying times for Joe Cole. Deco started for the third successive game for Chelsea last night, and Cole took what is fast becoming his customary plastic blue seat among the substitutes perched behind manager Carlo Ancelotti. This was not how it was supposed to go one month ago when the England midfielder returned with a fanfare after eight months out with a cruciate ligament injury.
Since his Carling Cup comeback against Queens Park Rangers, Cole has been reduced to two brief appearances from the bench. Five matches, and only 16 minutes of football for Cole. With the World Cup looming in the not-so-distant future Cole cannot afford to allow this situation to continue for long.
The England manager Fabio Capello has made it clear he will only consider players in the run-up to the finals if they are playing regular first-team football. At the moment, Cole's only trump card is that at least he should be fresh for South Africa if picked.
Cole is paying the price for Ancelotti's re-found faith in the unpredictable talents of Deco. The Portuguese playmaker has never settled at Chelsea, but in Ancelotti he has discovered a manager giving him the platform to display his undeniable skills. The former Barcelona schemer has started three games in a row now for Chelsea, a depressing thought for Cole as Deco is the man he has to dispossess.
Michael Essien is Chelsea's rock at the base of the diamond, flanked on either side by Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack. Lampard's form has dipped below his exemplary standards this season, yet no one suggests he should be dropped. And Ballack has become a key player for Chelsea: both times he has been missing from the midfield, the side have lost – to Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa.
Cole's name was given the loudest cheer from the crowd last night when the teams were read out. Chelsea supporters relate closely with Cole, and they can understand his growing frustration. The fans rose in tribute as he warmed up during the second half but still Ancelotti was unmoved.
At 27, Cole is approaching his best years, and he cannot afford to waste them on the bench. There is no suggestion that Cole is becoming dissatisfied with the situation at Chelsea. But that will not remain the case for too long. Another month of warming his backside in the dugout, and Cole will be forced to wonder if he really has a future at the club under Ancelotti.
Full of flicks and intelligent passing, Deco was Chelsea's most creative player last night. Even with the game safe at 3-0 up with 18 minutes to go, Ancelotti put on Yuri Zhirkov to replace two-goal hero Kalou, and then rubbed salt on Cole's wounds by throwing on Florent Malouda for Ashley Cole. Young England hopeful Daniel Sturridge even got run out, in place of Anelka, leaving Cole a disgruntled spectator.
A fit and flying Cole would be a key player for England next summer but not if he cannot get a game at Chelsea.