Cole hungry for a place at the heart of Chelsea and England

With Ancelotti playing no wide men, the returning midfielder could claim dream role tucking into the hole behind strikers – or the 'sausage roll', as he has it
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The Independent Football

Carlo Ancelotti's grasp of English may be improving by the day, but there was still no way he was going to fathom what Joe Cole has been banging on about, asking to be put in the "sausage roll".

Cole, one of England's forgotten men, returns to Chelsea's first team tonight after eight months out with a knee injury. And he has been badgering manager Ancelotti to give him a chance to express his bewildering talents in the position that perhaps suits him best – the hole behind a pair of strikers, or as Cole has put in rhyming slang, the "sausage roll".

It could prove to be the position that Cole was born to play in. Since his move to Chelsea in 2003 a succession of managers for both club and country have consistently picked him on the left wing. It is a job Cole has done with distinction for many seasons, but always under duress. Ideally, he would love to get his chance playing more centrally, and closer to the opposition goal, in an area where he will have greater licence to express his creative talent.

Cole is to get that opportunity tonight, in Chelsea's Carling Cup tie at home to neighbours Queen's Park Rangers. He has spent the last eight months recovering slowly from injury. The 27-year-old suffered a cruciate ligament injury to his right knee against Southend United in an FA Cup replay in January, and then a further tear to the knee in the summer meant his comeback was delayed by two months.

Ancelotti's assistant Ray Wilkins revealed yesterday Cole is itching to play in Chelsea's new-look narrower midfield. Wilkins said: "He calls it the 'sausage roll'. 'Am I going to play in the sausage roll – in the hole?' That's Joe. But it's nice to see he's bubbling. He's firing at the moment.

"It could be perfect for him. The system Carlo is playing now, Joe understands we're not playing with wide players at the moment. We're playing 'inside'. I think he'll be thrilled about that."

Thrilled is probably understating it. Cole is so desperate to play he would deputise between the posts for Petr Cech if it meant getting a game. He used up more energy as a substitute warming up on the touchline during last week's Champions League tie against Porto than some players manage in 90 minutes.

Chelsea have moved on remarkably since Cole last played. In that time, Luiz Felipe Scolari has been sacked, Guus Hiddink has been and gone, and now Ancelotti is taking the team to new heights, with six Premier League wins in a row. After such bad fortune perhaps the planets may now be aligning in Cole's favour as Ancelotti is set to give him his dream position.

England too have continued their improvement since Cole won the last of his 53 England caps in the 4-1 victory over Croatia in Zagreb more than a year ago, but his vision and ability on the ball would give them more options. A fit and flying Cole would also cause England manager Fabio Capello to revise his plans. However, right now his focus is purely on Chelsea.

Club captain John Terry and senior pro Frank Lampard have even taken Cole aside in recent weeks to tell him to calm down and be patient. Terry said: "Coley wants to run round at 100mph on his first day back in training and fly into tackles and do what he was doing nine months earlier.

"It's important for myself and Lamps to have a word and calm him down a bit because we have to keep him on a leash. He can be a bit of a nightmare but that's the great thing because he just wants to play football."

Cole's eagerness to play football is refreshingly retro in today's game. He is very much the same kid who endlessly kicked a ball around the streets of Camden nearly 20 years ago. His former manager at West Ham, Harry Redknapp, said of him last week: "When he was 10, 11, you couldn't get him away from a football."

That insatiable desire has made it difficult for Cole at times to cope with being out of the picture. He is such a team player he was never going to miss the chance to shower his team-mates with champagne at Wembley in May after their FA Cup final victory over Everton. But there have been times when the toll of being injured has got too much. Wilkins said: "The cruciate ligament injury is difficult to recover from - not physically, because medicine has come on, but mentally.

"For any player there are periods when you get down in the dumps but the lads have rallied round him and lifted his spirits. Then you always worry it might go again when you get back to playing. The cruciate is a nasty one to overcome and you're always wondering about that first kick you get, will it crack up? But he's received a number of kicks in training and he's coped with that."

Chelsea will also give a full debut to their £18m winger Yuri Zhirkov, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since joining from CSKA Moscow in the summer. But it is the return of Cole that will hold attention, with the World Cup just nine months away. The "sausage roll" could be but a tempting appetiser for next summer's main course.