From the beginning Ashley’s not playing. But today is Friday, the game is Monday. Something can happen in between. I play Branislav Ivanovic right-back, I play Cesar Azpilicueta left-back, I play John Terry, and I have to choose between Gary Cahill and David Luiz.
In other words, Cole’s been benched, perhaps not coincidentally, since Newcastle won 2-0 over Chelsea on November 2nd. Still, I’m left wondering, against whom would Theo have the better outing? There are suggestions that Cole has Theo’s number, but I’m not sure that’s quite true. Since the 2011-12 season, Theo has started four times against Chelsea and netted twice, not too shabby, especially when you consider that he played second-fiddle to van Persie in each outing. One of those two goals came, of course, back in October 2011 in an epic “I’ve fallen; no, I haven’t” effort that saw Walcott get behind Cole and belly-slide only to get back up and slot home in that pulsating 5-3 demolition of Chelsea back in 2011.
Of course, times have changed, and there’s little to be gleaned from that heady day. In the interim, Cole has started an inexorable fade; he’s now 33 and his trademark pace is a relic of the past. On the other side of the same coin, Theo is entering his prime; he’s 24 and perhaps on the verge of a breakthrough. In a way, it’s a shame that Cole showed his puss at the Libertine on Wednesday, giving Mourinho more of an excuse to push him further down the rotation. I’m going to go ahead and say something that the better part of me suggested I keep under my hat: I think Cole crashed the party to avoid playing on Monday. I think the idea of facing Theo had him quaking in his boots, literally and figuratively, and so he decided to give his manager even more reason to get benched.
Think about it. It’s not as if Azpilicueta has solidified the left side. After all, Chelsea have conceded six goals in their last three Prem matches facing the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke, and Sunderland. This run of form might have convinced Mourinho that Azpilicueta needed a break or even a demotion to put his feet to the fire. After all, it had been eight matches that he’s played a full 90′ without Cole even getting a warm-up on the sideline, much less an appearance on the pitch. I wouldn’t say that the Spaniard has gotten complacent, but I wouldn’t have put it past Mourinho to restore Cole against Arsenal just to tweak Arsène a bit. Knowing what we all know about the acrimony surrounding Cole’s departure in 2006 (with fines levied on he and Mourinho for their participation in illegal back-room dealings in 2005), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Cole does in fact start on Monday.
In fact, I welcome it.
After all, while Cole’s star seems to be waning, Theo’s might just be waxing. Of course, he’s barely returned from injury, but he’s looked lively and likely to start striking fear in opponents’ hearts. The only flaw there is that one has to have a heart before having fear struck in it, and Cole might just wriggle free on that account. On a more serious note, Theo has offered signs that he’s back and ready to pick up where he left off last season. In his last three appearances since returning from the abdominal injury that sidelined him in mid-September, he’s played 153 minutes of football and scored twice while adding two assists. Those two goals came while facing another former Arsenal left-back, Gael Clichy, whom Theo pinned back and exploited time and time again. Theo’s runs stretched Man City’s defense to the breaking-point several times, forcing an un-called hand-ball from Zabaleta in the box and creating several key-passes even while playing from the left in the second half.
Say what you will about Azpilicueta. He’s done quite well for himself since switching from right-back, his preferred position, taking over from Cole on the left in early November. However, he hasn’t faced the likes of what Theo can throw at him in his eight starts: West Brom, West Ham, Southampton, Sunderland (twice), Stoke, Crystal Palace, FC Basel. Hardly a Murderer’s Row. In that time, he’s delivered some strong performances, to be sure, even netting a goal when he faced us in October in that 0-2 league-cup defeat. Then again, he was defending against Ryo Miyaichi. No offense, Ryo, but I doubt that Azpilicueta felt the same pressure to track back against you as he’d feel against Theo.
As such, Mourinho might face a bit of a conundrum. Does he start Cole and risk an aging, past-his-prime left-back whose appearance is bound to stoke the home-fans, not to mention the players? Or does he stick with the up-and-coming and out-of-position right-back who has yet to face the kind of pace and movement that Theo is no doubt primed to unleash? Whichever way you slice it, I’m looking forward to Theo carving Chelsea open all afternoon. Whomever Walcott might face, be it Cole or Azpilicueta, he figures to run riot all along Chelsea’s left flank. With the service he’d receive from Özil and others, he could just have a field day. He had one on Saturday. Why not make it two matches in a row?