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Ashley Cole - England's finest


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Ashley Cole tonight played his 85th game for England, making him the highest-capped full-back in the history of the country.

Though Cole has his critics for his actions off the field and what would appear to be a very wild temper, on the pitch he is an exemplary athlete. His stamina is incredible; from the first minute to the last, a manager is guaranteed that his left-back will put in that extra distance to make that crucial block or to provide a killer pass.

And that's exactly what the Chelsea man did. With England 2-1 up in Basel, Cole supplied a perfect through ball for Sunderland striker Darren Bent, who duly finished with aplomb. Bent will take the plaudits for the finish and Fabio Capello will be praised for his team selection, tactics and substitutions, but Cole was the true star of the show.

Having barely been tested in a defensive sense on Friday evening against a dismally-poor Bulgaria side, Cole faced a much tougher proposition in a Swiss side notorious for their defensive discipline and patient build-up play. In fact, Diego Benaglio had conceded just one goal in his last five internationals, and had even kept a clean sheet against World Cup winners Spain in the tournament's group stages.

But Capello's England were rampant early on; scoring through media sweetheart Wayne Rooney, who, despite newspaper allegations about his private life, seems unable to do anything wrong at all. The Manchester United striker's first goal for his country in almost exactly a year (363 days to be precise) was later added to by strikes from Adam Johnson and Bent, whilst young Swiss talent Xherdan Shaqiri replied for the hosts.

Cole's performance was nothing extraordinary to the appreciative eye - since his début in 2001, the full-back has consistently been overlooked as one of England's stars. Instead, the media focus has been on David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and now Wayne Rooney. However, his undervalued status only fuels his desire to achieve.

As a footballer, Cole has won everything in the English game - and with six FA Cup winners medals, he is the most-successful player to have ever played in that tournament. A natural-born winner, Cole is hugely appreciated at Chelsea for his dynamic style of play; he is seen in the opponent's half more regularly than his own when the Blues take to the field at Stamford Bridge.

However his attack-mindedness isn't a typical attribute of the player; in fact, he began his career as an out-and-out left-back at Arsenal, rarely venturing forward. Under the guidance of great minds such as Arsene Wenger and José Mourinho he was encouraged to act as an attacking outlet, although always with caution.

It was under Luis Felipe Scolari that his career as a flying full-back truly blossomed. At Arsenal and under Mourinho and then Avram Grant at Chelsea, he was always tied to a leash; he would attack infrequently but rarely dared to go much further than the half-way line. Under Scolari, famous for his attacking wing-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos in Brazil's glorious 2002 World Cup campaign, he was allowed to attack on his own accord.

His game continued to mature and by the end of the 2009/10 season - incidentally his highest-ever scoring campaign with four goals - Cole was the complete defender, reliable at the back and adventurous along the left-flank. His quick reading of the game and excellent timing of the tackle make him a valuable asset to Chelsea, and Cole is now beginning to show his prowess at club level on the international stage.

Against Bulgaria he set up Jermain Defoe's first goal with a clever run and lob to the back post, and his assist for Darren Bent's game-clincher in Basel are the first signs of Cole's new footballing philosophy.

He might have his problems off the pitch, and his on-field antics (such as constantly berating match officials) may drive many people crazy, but there is no doubt in saying that having developed from a youngster with massive potential to the world's best full-back, Ashley Cole truly is England's finest.

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