Last-minute Cole grabs chance to show that he's no ordinary Joe

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It was a weekend of omens in Graz, from the opera singer who performed on a tightrope in the town on Saturday afternoon as a prescient symbol of Joe Cole's predicament on the edge of the squad to the pink advertising hoarding for which offered its own commentary on his attempts to demonstrate to Fabio Capello that a ticket for Wednesday's Virgin Airbus to Johannesburg should have his name on it.

Though Cole's World Cup pedigree is undeniable – his signature goal in Cologne against Sweden four years ago was one of the tournament's most photogenic – his hopes seemed to have been slipping as Adam Johnson's were rising in the course of the last year. But Cole was clutching a copy of the Chris Ryan novel Ultimate Weapon as he left here last night and that sums up what Capello has always known he represents.

When Sven Goran Eriksson, another manager who did not always select Cole, stood up at the Cafe Royal eight years ago and declared him a member of his 2002 squad, he said it was because the Londoner, then a 20-year-old with West Ham, was one of those players "who can come on and change things". He proved the same here.

As that hoarding suggested, there was only 45 minutes to demonstrate that he could make a difference but Cole delivered. To start with, there came a few of those smart flicks with the inside of the heel that look like smart-arse tricks when they go wrong, which they did. But the sight of a player inclined to try something was a matter to celebrate on an afternoon when England looked so effete and Cole, by Capello's design, was everywhere. He began his try-out behind Wayne Rooney and had gravitated down to the right side of midfield by the time Ashley Cole picked him out with a left-footed pass which encouraged him to whip around the full-back and deliver the cross which was diverted into the net by Marcus Tanaka.

"I just bounced it off his foot into the net," Cole joked last night, his demeanour reminding us of that brash confidence which has been missing from England for the 19 months since the cut he received to his head in Croatia needed 20 stitches. But Cole was the one with a knack of making things happen. The pass he struck to Ashley Cole elicited a cross which Yuji Nakazawa deflected in.

The occasional nature of Cole's contributions is what so often invites debate on his input, or lack of it, as a team player. But the same could be said of the day last month when Cole's inside-of-heel flick into the net at Old Trafford – not so smart-arse, that one – proved so critical to Chelsea's title. Capello was there to witness that one, too, and on the basis of the way the Italian was talking last night it seems safe to assume that Cole has beaten Johnson and Shaun Wright-Phillips to a hotly contested winger's role.

This is hard on Johnson, whom Capello seems to have decided very quickly in the past two weeks would not be a part of his plans. The Manchester City player's contribution in training has been fairly spectacular, as far as his shooting is concerned. He sent three out of three penalties into the bottom corner, way beyond David James, on Friday, as well as a couple of superbly whipped shots into the top corner.

But Capello rather brutally questioned his stamina at the weekend and rejection seems likely, which will be hard to take for the Premier League's outstanding wide midfielder of the past three months. Perhaps his time will come when Hungary arrive at Wembley for England's first post-World Cup fixture in August. Cole's debut, against Mexico, came nine years and 54 caps ago; Johnson's, against Mexico, has given him just six minutes as an international.

If Wright-Phillips misses the cut, as seems likely, then it will be harder to take for a player more willing to track back than most and who was no less combative than Cole yesterday. He has missed out on club football in the same way at City as he did at Chelsea before Eriksson rejected him and, at the age of 28, may reflect that his international prospects have gone.

Cole – the man who once boldly said that "people have been crying out for someone to come into the England team and dribble and beat players: I hear them and go, 'I can do that'" – will believe he justifies his place, though he was certainly not banking on anything last night. Today will be a long one for him of waiting, hoping that the personal phone call Capello has promised the rejects does not come tomorrow. "I've never been in this position so I don't know what I'll do," Cole said last night. "I'll just do my thing. Wake up, have my breakfast and away we go. But I guess you've got to put football into perspective because it can you drive mad."

Cole, like Capello, feels that he has benefited from his months out with a serious knee injury. "I feel fresh – that's the main thing, I feel fit and strong. The main thing is to feel fresh at this time in the season." Capello will need more from him if the biblical rain that fell in Graz at the end of the match does not prove to be another premonition – that England will need divine intervention in South Africa.