Freak show can have thrilling finale

Cole and Crouch start to shed their enigma tags - and it's encouraging news for England
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The Independent Football

In the conformist world of modern professional football they have been regarded as slightly freakish, individualistic figures, who therefore cannot be trusted when the chips are down and whose credentials are regularly mocked. Yet Joe Cole and Peter Crouch have finished the year on top of their game, looking back on a superb month and as far ahead as they dare to what could be a thrilling 2006 for club and country.

Better still, instead of merely mirroring the current high standing of Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, the players' form has contributed heavily towards it.

A year ago, not even the arch-tactician Jose Mourinho knew quite what to make of Cole. Having deliberately criticised his maverick midfielder despite a fine winning goal against Liverpool, he inflicted further public humiliation by pulling him off after 45 minutes at West Bromwich and not selecting him for another two months. "No one knew what his best position was, not even him," the manager claimed last week.

Cole has, in fact, insisted in the past that playing just behind two strikers brings out the best in him, but that did not fit Mourinho's methods, so he was forced to fight for one of two places on the flanks with Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. It is by no means his natural role, but through hard work and discipline he has grown into it, while retaining a measure of characteristic improvisation.

Hence Mourinho's plaudits after the narrow victory last Wednesday at Manchester City (with Cole's winning goal): "He is untouchable... fantastic in every aspect of his game," which yesterday had to be refined with a blunt reminder not to revert to bad old days of playing to the crowd instead of for the team.

The player himself, one of those happy souls who simply loves having a ball at his feet, says: "We're all having the time of our lives. I like to think this is the best I've ever played. It's exciting times." It certainly is. A second successive championship medal with Chelsea is all but guaranteed. On the horizon are two potentially epic games with Barc-elona, the survivors of which will be firm favourites to win the Champions' League. Then there is the little matter of a World Cup, in the knowledge that Sven Goran Eriksson - who once regarded Cole as the enigma that Mourinho did - has confirmed he is currently first choice to fill the troublesome hole on England's left side.

It would not be a surprise if, in that role, he finished one or two matches in Germany aiming crosses at the head of a substitute named Crouch (pictured). Assuming - please God - that Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen are fully fit in June, that would seem to be what Eriksson has in mind for a striker who has belatedly found the scoring touch that brought him 15 goals between the start of December 2004 and the end of last season.

Perhaps, as Dave Bassett once suggested for his slow starters at Sheffield United, Crouch should have a Christmas party in August. Once the bleak midwinter kicks in, so does he, and his goals this month have helped establish Liverpool as credible challengers for the runners-up position in the Premiership.

Second place is the most that Rafa Benitez, a realist among football men, ever hoped for in the current campaign; his stated ambition was not even anything so grand, merely a steady improvement, and diminution of the embarrassing 37-point gap behind Chelsea last May. Even without the footballing miracle of Istanbul, Benitez deserves credit at this year's end for the change in fortunes over the past few months, and in particular for his loyalty to Crouch.

A little belatedly, Benitez has found some proper support for him in Djibril Cissé, whose pace and ability to drive beyond the final defender make him Crouch's ideal partner. In striking up that partnership, Cissé appears to have resurrected his own Anfield career, which had been looking in jeopardy as a transfer window beckoned. Against Everton in midweek, as in the Club World Championship semi-final against the Costa Ricans of Saprissa, they looked a formidable pair.

Happily for Eriksson as well as Benitez, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have carried on where they left off in the Ataturk Stadium. Jose Reina has proved a fine goalkeeper, and Sami Hyypia has responded so well to the threat of losing his place that the pressure to find a new central defender once the window opens today has eased. Instead, Benitez and his chief executive, Rick Parry, have concentrated first on strengthening the side at full-back, by importing Holland's Jan Kromkamp from Villarreal in exchange for one of the manager's less successful signings, Josemi. They can hardly lose on the deal.

What might the new year hold for the other members of the Premiership's big four (if Wigan will excuse the term), the pair who meet at Highbury on Tuesday night? However much the encounter may be hyped on Sky Sports and elsewhere, it is a less momentous occasion than usual, and not just because Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane will be unable to exchange barbs in the tunnel.

United, like Liverpool, have to regard finishing second as an achievement these days, and because they will be looking the other way when the Champions' League resumes, they need to be deploying strong sides in the two domestic cup competitions this month as well. Having the word "trophyless" appended to his name for a second successive season would not help Sir Alex Ferguson's ambition to reach his 65th birthday in 364 days' time as their manager.

Arsenal, too, have been forced by the Chelsea hegemony to redefine their ambitions, finally accepting that Vieira has been badly missed and that the season is essentially one of transition while the replacements for him, Dennis Bergkamp, and possibly Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole as well, are either groomed or scouted.

It would be an irony if a serious challenge to become champions of Europe materialised amid this turmoil, but fortunes can change swiftly in football. Ask Joe and the Beanpole.

EDUCATING JOE COLE: ANATOMY OF AN ENGLISH TALENT TAKEN TO TASK BY HIS MANAGER

Brain

A free spirit, often indulged at West Ham, Joe Cole has learned tactical discipline from Jose Mourinho, especially with regard to his defensive duties. Sven Goran Eriksson and England have reaped the benefit as well as Chelsea.

Body strength

Since making his West Ham debut at Old Trafford just after his 17th birthday in January 1999, Cole has put on the best part of a stone. Chelsea's fitness trainers now have him at his optimum fighting weight. He is much harder to shake off the ball.

Tricks

Made a reputation as an Islington schoolboy for a remarkable repertoire of skills, and is prone to irritating his manager by overdoing it - Joe was at it again yesterday - and losing possession. But he continues to brighten many a dull Premiership game with a sublime touch.

Passing

Has slowly curbed the tendency to dribble too much, and now gets his head up to spot - or anticipate - runs by team-mates. Invariably able to find them with passes from either foot, and supply dangerous crosses from both flanks.

Shooting

Took 30 League games to score for West Ham and 33 for Chelsea, but has upped his rate over the past two seasons, partly as a result of starting more matches. Outstanding technique means he can place shots accurately rather than simply blasting them.

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