England 1 Denmark 0 - comment: Ashley Cole shows class while Luke Shaw owns the future
Roy Hodgson's decision on who will join Leighton Baines wasn't made any easier last night
As this match kicked off an advertisement flashed up on the advertising hoarding running around Wembley's middle tiers: “Win a trip to Brazil”.
On the pitch Ashley Cole and Luke Shaw were about to enter a two-man competition for that prize. Roy Hodgson had appeared to indicate Leighton Baines was on the plane, and either Cole or Shaw would join him. Cole, winning his 107th cap, went first, playing the opening half. Shaw, at 18 the younger man by 15 years, played the second half, his debut in an England shirt.
It is a long time since Cole had to audition for England, 13 years. Back in 2001 Cole was even more of a tyro selection than Shaw. At 20 he was older than Shaw is, but Cole had only half-a-season in the Championship on loan to Crystal Palace, and a dozen Premier League games with Arsenal behind him. Shaw has played 50 matches in the top flight. Cole had however, played seven times in the Champions League including home and away ties against Bayern Munich. It was a performance in Munich that persuaded Sven Goran Eriksson to pitch him into a World Cup qualifier in Albania. Cole replaced Chris Powell, now the Charlton manager, who been Eriksson's first left-back. Powell was an unexpected choice, and at 31 clearly a stop-gap, but acquitted himself well enough that there no clamour for a replacement.
But Eriksson decided Cole was the future and picked him in Tirana ahead of Phil Neville. It was an intimidating atmosphere - Cole was himself hit by a cigarette lighter thrown from the crowd - but he gave a composed performance. Until this season Cole has been first choice ever since. He has subsequently represented England at three World Cups and two European Championships, playing all 22 games in those tournaments. The stand-out performances have been against Cristiano Ronaldo, notably in Lisbon at Euro 2004.
Great is an over-used adjective in football but Cole qualifies. In the half-century in which England have been playing with a recognisable back four only Ray Wilson and Kenny Sansom have been in the same class. But ankle injuries have been a problem in recent years and, this season, Jose Mourinho has dropped him for Cesar Azpilicueta, a right-back. Cole has not played since January and started only one Premier League game since facing Shaw's Southampton on New Year's Day. He needed this game to prove he was still up to the task as much as Shaw needed it to show he was ready.
In the circumstances it would have been helpful if Denmark's right flank had been occupied by, say Dennis Rommedahl in his electrifyingly fast pomp. Instead Cole faced Emil Larsen, and Shaw encountered Kasper Kusk. Both were 22-year-olds still playing in the domestic league and winning their fifth cap.
Still, both are well regarded and expected to move to the major European leagues soon. More of a problem was England's dominance of possession. This gave the pair few opportunities to show their defensive abilities, an aspect of the game at which Cole is probably stronger than Shaw - or Baines. This matters. Left-back is no longer the position the worst player is dumped at, since Roberto Carlos revolutionised the role, and the centre of the pitch became more congested, full-backs have become key attacking players, but to progress in a World Cup England will need to be solid defensively.
Shaw shows promise defensively, but it is his forward play which has caught the eye. Athletic, strong, quick and good on the ball he wasted no time getting into advanced positions, going past opponents and linking well with team-mates. Particularly impressive was the fact he did not try to do too much. It would have been understandable if, in the circumstances, he had tried to make a mark and over-indulged. Instead he attacked opponents when it was on, and passed when it was not.
Ashley Cole will hope that his experience counts in his favour (Getty)
It was Cole, though, who came closest to making a goal. He was as eager to overlap as Shaw and midway through the opening period ran onto Wayne Rooney's pass and crossed low across the box only for Raheem Sterling, under pressure, to turn the ball against the far post.
As a trial it was thus inconclusive making Hodgson choice, as he admitted afterwards, even tougher. “I thought both were very good,” he added. “Ashley got forward well, his defending was good, Luke carried on in the same way.
“There is a lot of football to be played and I will be seeing a lot of Luke and Leighton Baines in the next few months, and hopefully, Ashley.”
Hodgson was not, he said, surprised by the sharpness of Cole performance despite his lack of first team action. “In training he has been unbelievable. He's very fit - he's right at the top of the running statistics if you put much store by those things (Hodgson does not).”
The final decision on Shaw will probably come down to whether Hodgson decides the long-term benefit of taking the teenager to a major tournament outweighs the short-term risk of his needing to play due to an injury to the senior player - and Hodgson, post-match, seemed to indicate Baines does not even have a place on the plane secured. If Hodgson feels that is not a risk, that Shaw would not let him down, then Shaw must go.
But spare a thought for the last man to wear England's No.3 prior to this match, the one who finished in possession of the shirt at the end of the November defeat to Germany. It was Kieran Gibbs, who seems destined to suffer not only from being prone to injury, but from playing in an era when England are spoilt for choice in his position.
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