Today's Arsenal would beat England, says a man who plays for them both

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When Manchester United were in their pomp in the afterglow of winning the European Cup, David Beckham suggested they would beat England. The question to Ashley Cole seems obvious: would Arsenal beat England?

When Manchester United were in their pomp in the afterglow of winning the European Cup, David Beckham suggested they would beat England. The question to Ashley Cole seems obvious: would Arsenal beat England?

"I would have to say yes," Cole replies with a grin. "I think we have got some great players with England, but Arsenal have some unbelievable ones." And he starts to list them: Henry, Vieira, Reyes. And Cesc Fabregas, the 17-year-old from Barcelona who on Sunday orchestrated the disembowelling of Everton. "He's been playing in the reserves for the last couple of years and he's definitely got bigger and stronger."

At Goodison, the self-styled "People's Club" was put to the sword by English football's ultimate aristocracy, and should they avoid defeat against Middlesbrough at Highbury on Sunday, Arsenal will equal the 42-match unbeaten record set by Nottingham Forest in December 1978, two years before Cole's birth.

Those who imagine that statistics are just so much fluff to young, impossibly wealthy footballers should listen to the boy from Stepney, east London. "Everyone is saying we won't be a great side until we win the League two years on the trot and that is what we are aiming to do. We do think we can retain it because we want to be known as champions and as unbelievable players. To do that you have to win the League twice."

It would have been that much harder had Patrick Vieira pushed through his desire to play at Real Madrid. It is the easiest observation to make that Arsenal need Vieira; he is the best ball-winning midfielder in the Premiership. But inside the dressing-room he is something else, a protective, almost paternal figure.

"He is a great guy. If you need anything, just ask him and he will do it for you, especially if you are a youngster coming through. He is a great captain and a great leader, always up for the fight. I was a bit nervous when I first met him because he hammered the tattoo on my arm. But if you're young, he doesn't care because he'll look after you. That's what you need in a captain."

When Arsène Wenger stated that he thought Arsenal could go through the 2002-03 season unbeaten - a promise he declined to repeat at Everton - it was thought insufferably arrogant. However, some, like the Newcastle defender Andy O'Brien, thought it a wonderful public gesture of confidence in his players. O'Brien imagined that having a manager state you could not lose would sustain a footballer through some very rough times.

Gestures like that may be why Cole claims he has generally been surer of himself at left-back for Arsenal than with England. "I am quite shy. You probably won't think it but I am lacking in confidence and at one stage I was doubting my ability and it was getting into my head. Now I do feel I can play at this level."

Cole is 23, yet it is approaching four years since he was pitched into the spotlight, thrust up against Paulo Sergio in a 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich that Arsenal should have won. In March 2001, he made his international debut in Albania, his beginning marked by a wound from a lipstick case thrown from the crowd. However, only this summer, after an exceptional display in the European Championship, did Cole really feel settled in an England shirt.

"Macedonia away was bad. I always felt like it was down to me and I was always making these little mistakes. It hit me in the head that I had to start playing well. I was playing well for Arsenal but not for England, and I had to look at my game and see what was going wrong.

"I began to defend well and not attack at stupid moments. Sven Goran Eriksson and Arsène Wenger were saying 'Just play your natural game', but it seemed the attacks were always going down my side so I stayed back more, stayed on my feet a little bit more."

He admits that part of the problem has been Eriksson's persistent inability to fill the gap on the left side of England's midfield, and Cole confesses to envying the rapport Beckham has with Gary Neville, or indeed the one he enjoys with Robert Pires at Highbury. "We've always worked well together, that's why I am so settled at Arsenal. I don't get as nervous.

"As a defender, it's all about positional play and if that's out then people are going to run rings around you. If I'm playing with Sol Campbell, he is always talking to me, telling me to do things, and I have definitely improved because of that. And at Arsenal, although Robert doesn't tackle back too much, you have Sol running out, Patrick getting back, and it gives you confidence. I am not sliding into tackles any more - that's from playing with Sol because he hates that."

If Arsenal were 1-0 up against Portugal in the quarter-final of the European Championship, would they have attempted to nurse their lead through to the final whistle, or would they have gone for a second, killer goal?

That night in Lisbon's great Stadium of Light, the chief complaint from England's defenders was that whenever they cleared their lines, the ball kept relentlessly coming back at them. Eventually, it wore them down.

"We have to keep the ball, be calmer on the ball and give the back four time to push up," Cole said. "Everyone was so tired, it was so hot and we were dropping too deep but it was through fatigue more than anything else.

"Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard ran their legs off and I felt sorry for them more than anyone. Tiredness at the end killed us."