England blessed with the best defence in the world, says Cole

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The Independent Online

England arrived in Azerbaijan last night with their left-back Ashley Cole claiming they now possess the best defence in world football.

England arrived in Azerbaijan last night with their left-back Ashley Cole claiming they now possess the best defence in world football.

On Saturday, they had reduced the Wales striker John Hartson's promise that he would "meet fire with fire" to an empty boast and now in this self-styled "Land of Fire" they surely have the men to take whatever heat this enthusiastic but limited home side can produce tomorrow.

Indeed, Cole was not about to disagree when it was suggested that England's rearguard was now of a higher standard than any other international team. He duly ran off the names; Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ledley King, Gary Neville and Sol Campbell and then added: "I do think we've got the best defence out there to be honest." He did not even mention Jonathan Woodgate, the man for whom Real Madrid paid £13m.

As England were effortlessly keeping Hartson at bay, Carlos Alberto, Azerbaijan's coach, exclaimed that he was tired of playing "shit" teams like Wales and Northern Ireland and was looking forward to the class of England. If the man who underpinned Brazil's thrilling drive to the 1970 World Cup wanted a demonstration of England's ability, he should look where he used to play - in defence.

It is Ferdinand and Campbell around whom the back four revolves. They may have taken part in only 11 competitive internationals together under Sven Goran Eriksson but in the last eight a mere three goals have been conceded. Two of those were in the fateful World Cup quarter-final with Brazil, the only match in which the pairing has tasted defeat.

The Wales attack, varied and potent on paper, was swatted away at Old Trafford. Not once did Hartson win a significant header against Ferdinand and although the rough pitch in Baku may hinder them against Azerbaijan, defeat ought to be the furthest thought on their horizon.

It was, however, Cole himself whom Eriksson singled out. "He is absolutely world class," Eriksson said. "He defends well. He has incredible pace. Normally, when you see a player with pace, they don't have stamina but he has both. He goes up and down like a train; inside as well as out. He doesn't just overlap, he hits good crosses. I remember that when I took this job we didn't have a left-back. It was a big issue for a long time."

No longer. As England arrived in the Soviet Union's former oil capital, the objective of the ill-fated Stalingrad offensive, Cole was claiming he had nothing like the ability of his hero, Roberto Carlos. This was surely false modesty. "I don't know what it is, just confidence maybe," Cole said. "Before Euro 2004, I thought I'd played well but, afterwards, I felt I'd become more comfortable and part of it.

"I wouldn't say I've finally cracked it but after the championships I started to think: 'Yes I can attack and not get exposed'. I don't think I'm world class but, being at Arsenal, I'm only going to improve."

Cole made his debut in Albania, experiencing not too dissimilar conditions from the atmosphere England will encounter in the stadium named after that linesman in the 1966 World Cup final, Tofik Bakhramov. That game in Tirana was atypical in that England won relatively easily. The other matches on European football's outer fringes, in Slovakia and Macedonia, have been hard-fought affairs.

Italy's defeat in Slovenia on Saturday, not to mention the Netherlands' 2-2 draw against Macedonia and Portugal's astonishing loss of a two-goal lead in Liechtenstein are reminders that there might be something in the great cliché that "there are no easy games". Ask Berti Vogts what he thinks of the Faroe Islands.

"It's a wake-up call," said Owen Hargreaves, when reminded of this string of results. "But I wouldn't agree that we have a bad record against those sort of teams because we won the games. Going to Macedonia and getting a win speaks for the character of this team. You saw Holland draw 2-2 over there."

The Bayern Munich midfielder does not quite possess the arrogance of his club goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, but he made it quite clear he expects three points in Baku. That kind of result would leave England comfortable favourites to win Group Six, especially since all their remaining games will be played within the United Kingdom. Azerbaijan may be utterly hopeless outside the confines of Baku - they remain the only side ever to have lost to Liechtenstein - but they have improved significantly under Carlos Alberto. In April they even recorded their first away win, although this was only in Kazakhstan. Certainly, they surprised the Welsh, who last month found themselves worn down on a wretched pitch and conceded a free-kick from almost 40 yards in the 1-1 draw.

John Gorman, England's former assistant manager, watched them for Eriksson and reported the Azeri as being: "Good technically and quite attractive to watch. You could see how the style of their play related to their new coach." However, this does not mean their wing-backs will be streaming forward to feed Pele, Jairzinho and Tostao. There is only so much even a Brazilian can achieve.

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