Now Wenger asks Cole to follow leader

New offer in air as full-back ponders options
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The Independent Football

Ashley Cole is spending the weekend with his family and holding talks with his agent Jonathan Barnett to discuss whether or not he will sever his 16-year association with Arsenal and push ahead with plans to move to either Spain or Italy.

At the same time the club are keen to open negotiations with the 25-year-old left-back to offer him a new and vastly improved contract less than a year after he signed his current deal.

Cole's future is in the balance. His relationship with Arsenal, and especially the vice-chairman David Dein, has simply not recovered from the fall-out over the tapping-up inquiry involving Chelsea. That led to the 25-year-old being fined £100,000. Barnett was Dein's guest at the European Cup final last Wednesday but relations are still decidedly frosty.

Cole did sign a new deal, which doubled his £27,000-a-week wages, extending his ties to the club until 2008. Crucially, however, there is understood to be a £16m get-out clause which Chelsea have tried to activate, though they have grown less confident about their chances of securing the England international. Real Madrid have long headed the list of clubs interested in him but enquiries are also likely from Barcelona, Milan and Juventus.

One problem for Cole is that none of the potential suitors are keen to pay as much as £16m for him even if he is regarded as one of the world's leading full-backs. Consequently he may delay any decision until after the World Cup. A strong performance there might help persuade clubs to match the fee.

Arsenal, however, are attempting to pre-empt that following Thierry Henry's decision to stay. Manager Arsène Wenger indicated before Christmas that they would negotiate again with Cole if he wanted to and it is understood that they are prepared to offer another substantial wage hike which would make him their second-highest paid player, behind Henry.

In the wake of Wednesday's defeat Cole, who joined Arsenal as a nine-year-old, was again asked about his future, and once again he refused to be drawn. "I don't really want to talk about that," he said. "I say I'm staying, but the next day they [the newspapers] say I'm leaving. It's just going round in circles. I've played my heart out for the club since I've been here, and I've never said I was leaving."

There have been enough noises behind the scenes, however, to lead to serious doubts over Cole's future, while Henry's commitment is not thought to have a bearing on his decision.

It has been a tricky two years for Cole with this season blighted by injuries, from a damaged ankle to a broken metatarsal. He has started Arsenal's last four matches but, before that, he had not completed a first-team game since 2 October.

That led to doubts that he would be fit for the World Cup. Cole himself says he never lost faith. "I always knew I'd be fit. I've been training hard, and played reserve games," he said. "I've not played a lot of this season, but I feel fine and will hopefully play to my potential. I do need a couple more games to get a little bit sharper. As a player, you've always got to have confidence in your own ability. I've had a tough season and I've needed to prove to myself, and to other people, that I was fit enough and good enough to go to a World Cup." He was happy, he said, with his performance against Barça if not the result. "I can take positives out of the game," Cole said.

Another positive for England was the display of Sol Campbell, and Cole admitted that he also "had a lot of things to prove". "He's gone through a lot of troubles," he added. "He had a tough game against [Samuel] Eto'o, who was sharp, but he dealt with him really well."

The future for Arsenal also, he believes, is bright. "They can hit the heights," he said. "They've got a great young squad. Everyone's together, and if we improve as a team, hopefully we can be back here again winning it." The club and their fans will hope that he will play his part in that.

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