Joe Cole has spent most of his England career playing walk-on roles but over the next 10 days the Chelsea midfielder could be given the chance to take centre stage. With the injured Steven Gerrard, Kieron Dyer and Wayne Bridge all missing from the England squad named last night by Sven Goran Eriksson for the World Cup qualifiers against Wales at Old Trafford on Saturday and away to Azerbaijan the following Wednesday, Cole will be one of the leading contenders to plug one of the midfield gaps.
Although the return to fitness of Nicky Butt compensates for the loss of Gerrard, Eriksson is wrestling with the perennial question of who to play on the left flank. The England manager thought he had found the solution last month, when Bridge formed an excellent partnership in front of Ashley Cole for the opening World Cup qualifying matches away to Austria and Poland, but the Chelsea defender has been ruled out of the squad with a calf injury.
Eriksson's problems have been accentuated by the summer retirement from international football of Paul Scholes and Dyer's absence through injury. Eriksson said: "It's a pity Wayne Bridge is out because it went very well in Austria and Poland. We don't have that many options on the left side."
Those options include Jermaine Jenas, who scored for Newcastle against Birmingham yesterday and is in good form, and Phil Neville, who is recalled to the squad, though Owen Hargreaves is likely to be ahead of both in the pecking order. Eriksson likes the Bayern Munich player's versatility and he would bring additional defensive strength to the left flank.
When Eriksson considered his options, however, Cole was the first player he mentioned, despite the fact that in 18 international appearances he has started a match only twice, on both occasions in friendlies. He has made only three appearances as a substitute in competitive matches, the last of them for the final six minutes of the 2-2 draw away to Austria. Cole has been in good form for Chelsea, scoring the winner against Liverpool yesterday.
With midfielders thin on the ground at the moment, there will be no threat to David Beckham's place in the team. The captain's value to the side was questioned last month, but Eriksson insisted: "I know that in some of the games recently he could have played better, but I thought he played well in the last game. He's scored a couple of goals from free-kicks for Real Madrid this season."
After weekend speculation that Rio Ferdinand might be groomed as a possible future national captain, Eriksson stressed yesterday that he had no intention of taking the job away from Beckham, "not today, tomorrow, not even the day after. There is no reason why I should do it."
The return of Ferdinand after his suspension for missing a drugs test and Sol Campbell after injury mean that Eriksson is likely to revert to his first-choice central defence, despite the excellence of John Terry and Ledley King in Vienna and Katowice last month.
Wayne Rooney is fit again and seems certain to start, leaving Eriksson having to choose between Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe for the other striker's position. Owen's lack of first-team opportunities for Real Madrid has been a concern for Eriksson this season, while Defoe impressed against Poland, scoring a fine goal.
The England squad will prepare this week at Carrington, Manchester United's training ground, and all the players will be available for the first session tomorrow. United had threatened at the end of last week to invoke the "four-day rule", under which they are not required to release players for international duty for a Saturday match until midnight on the preceding Tuesday, but the club relented over the weekend.