Far from ordinary Joe can feel that old devilry returning

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Joe Cole tells the story of the day he turned down Manchester United. "When I was a kid and I was there on trial I had the chance to go to one of the cup finals," he recalls. "I could have gone, had a great day, met the players, got a signed shirt. But my dad [George] spoke to them and said, 'We don't want to lead you on', because I had already decided to sign for West Ham. It would have been wonderful for me as a 13-year-old kid to have gone to the game, but I didn't because I respect them as a club and Sir Alex Ferguson as a manager."

Cole cannot recall which final it was, whether it was the 1994 League Cup meeting with Aston Villa (which United lost) or the FA Cup final (which they won). That was against Chelsea, of course, and today Cole will be in the visitors' ranks for perhaps the defining match of the season at Old Trafford.

Ferguson remained an admirer and constantly enquired of Harry Redknapp, Cole's manager at Upton Park, how "my Joe" was doing. The midfielder neatly sidesteps questions of whether he regrets not moving north but adds: "For someone such as Sir Alex Ferguson to like you as a player then you must be doing something right."

Indeed it feels some time since the 25-year-old did anything wrong. He has turned into the complete, disciplined and creative player. And yet he faces the annual battle to force his way back into Jose Mourinho's side. It is the third year he has been set the challenge although, this time at least, it has been injury rather than a need to convince the Chelsea manager of his worth that has held him back.

Cole damaged his knee in his club's first pre-season friendly, in Chicago against the MSL All-Stars, and the injury proved "nasty" enough to deny him the first three months of the season. Fit again, he is now the "victim" of Chelsea's good form, according to Mourinho, rather than a change in formation and personnel with the arrival of Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko and the shedding of the wingers.

Despite his impressive return for England two Wednesdays ago Cole, who said he is "finally feeling myself again", is far from being assured a starting place today and made only his third start of the season in midweek against Werder Bremen, where he played, out of position, as a central striker. Not that he is daunted.

"The challenge for me is to get up to my level," Cole says. "There's a new confidence in me now and when I'm playing at my level I think I will play in this team. I expect it from myself. I am there now and I want to play. But I'm also professional and accept the decision of the manager. But I'm fully confident that I'll get my place back."

He has certainly been frustrated but has not sought talks with Mourinho - "there's no need" - even if the manager has not held back his criticism of Cole in the past. "It's a challenge and I'm looking forward to it," the midfielder says of his current predicament.

What is also a challenge is the re-emergence of United as title contenders. Cole scored a wonderful individual goal as they were brushed aside last season prior to Chelsea's title celebrations, but he feels the campaign will continue to be a lot closer this time round. "The last two seasons have been very similar in that we have gone away and won it really early," Cole says. "This year has set a new challenge for us. Man United have raised the bar a little bit and we have to chase them down. The players are looking forward to that. There is certainly no apprehension, just excitement."

That standard, he feels, has partly been set by the arrival of his friend Michael Carrick, and the two will talk before today's game. "Michael's done well for them, coming in and strengthening the midfield," Cole says. "Scholes is back and that makes a difference. Ronaldo is playing brilliantly, Rooney is coming into form. They've got lots of big players playing well, and when that happens it makes the team click. Without giving them too much praise, I've been very impressed by them."

Cole senses that Mourinho has been impressed also. "The manager is as excited as the players because it's a new challenge, and when you get people who have achieved as much as he has in the game you don't do it by standing still," he says. "When he left Porto he was the king of the castle, he came to Chelsea and we did well and now it's a new challenge for us to explore. We have to claw ourselves back to the top of the League."

It feels like a long time since a Chelsea player has talked about catch-up and the game being "probably the toughest test we have had because of the situation we are in". But Cole adds: "It's like horses - some like to lead from the front, others like to come from behind. And that's the challenge for us."

There will be plenty of thoroughbreds on show this afternoon, but Cole feels that such intense contests often come down to "character, personality".

"When two good clubs come together it's about on the day, who's up for it, who wants it more and who has the nerve and the composure," Cole argues. "It's not like Chelsea playing against someone when we can afford to have two or three players having an off-day. It's going to be an emotional game with a lot of passion. They will not have enjoyed watching us win the League in the last two years, not a club like Man United. It will have hurt."

It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing encounter and, indeed, it's interesting to hear Cole say "football's about winning, not looking pretty", which sounds like a Mourinho-ism. More "spice" is added because both teams lost in Europe in midweek and "big teams don't lose two games".

It could also make it more physical. Cole brushes that aside. "I don't think you can muscle us out of the game," he says. "That's been shown many times. We are a very powerful side both physically and mentally. We are a very difficult side to beat." Lose today, however, and it really will be a Premiership race to savour.