Ashley Cole is understood to be considering his Chelsea future over the club's determination to punish him in the wake of revelations about his extra-marital relationships.
The Chelsea and England left-back is said to be furious that the club are singling him out for disciplinary action, which will include a hefty fine and a possible suspension, after Sunday newspapers claimed he had an affair while on the club's tour to America last summer and asked an unwitting senior club official to help him cover it up.
Sources close to Cole yesterday suggested that if he feels victimised it could be enough to force him to leave the Stamford Bridge club, which he joined in a controversial, drawn-out transfer from Arsenal in 2006, and move abroad.
Cole, 29, is one of the most highly rated full-backs in the world and would easily be able to find a new club in the summer if he decides that Chelsea's treatment of him is unacceptable. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Internazionale would all undoubtedly be keen to recruit Cole, who is currently out of action with a fractured ankle.
The defender believes he would be able to escape some of the intense media attention were he to move abroad. Cole, who is married to pop singer Cheryl Cole, has been told he would get more privacy in Spain or Italy. He is also said to be tempted by the less punishing tax levels enjoyed by several European countries.
Cole is to argue his case when he faces members of the club's board later this week, after tomorrow night's Champions League knockout first leg against Inter, who are managed by Cole's former Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho. The defender's case is believed to centre on the terms and conditions of his contract, and whether he has actually broken them by his behaviour. The club, however, are keen to make an example of Cole rather than John Terry, whose extra-marital affair cost him the England captaincy, because two of Cole's indiscretions happened on "club time".
Ann Corbitt, a 28-year-old local government worker, claimed she had an affair with Cole during the club's pre-season tour of Seattle. She also claimed the club contacted her to help her manage the media. It has also been reported that members of the Chelsea back-room staff helped Cole to sneak secretary Vicki Gough into his hotel room before a game at West Bromwich Albion last season.
The Chelsea board is taking an extremely tough stance over Cole's behaviour after the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, intervened last week to demand an end to the succession of sleazy stories that has engulfed the club in the past month.
Terry had an affair with Wayne Bridge's former girlfriend Vanessa Perroncel, while three women have recently told newspapers that they have slept with Cole. Abramovich told the club's chief executive, Ron Gourlay, to issue the players with strict instructions about their behaviour.
Gourlay and the manager, Carlo Ancelotti, met with the squad last Wednesday, when Ancelotti handed each player a sheet with the club's code of conduct on it. Players were reminded that no one was above the law, and told that there would be no amnesty for indiscretions in the past that might come to light in the future.
Cole has also been in trouble with the law. Last month he was banned from driving for four months after speeding at 104mph in a 50mph zone. His defence that he was being chased by photographers failed to convince magistrates, who also dismissed his claim the speed gun had been faulty. Cole, who earns £100,000 a week, asked for 21 days to pay his £1,000 fine.
Cole's stand-in Yuri Zhirkov picked up a calf injury in the 2-0 win over Wolves on Saturday and is definitely out of the Inter game.