Is Baines ready to secure England spot?
While England go in search of the six points they need to secure World Cup qualification, Leighton Baines knows that two solid individual performances could ensure he heads to Brazil as Roy Hodgson’s first choice left-back.
October 11th, 2013
Baines has been an able understudy to Ashley Cole for more than three years now, as many have before him, with Cole’s remarkable consistency allowing him to rack up 105 caps over a 12-year international career.
But while Cole shows no signs of slowing down, he is coming under increasing pressure from Baines, who has really stepped up his performances in recent years.
The 28-year-old has always been a greater offensive threat than Ashley Cole, but the Chelsea man is seen as a better defender, especially in big games up against a world-class right-winger.
This is reflected by the fact only six of Baines’ 19 caps have been in competitive matches, with the majority of those in games where England are expected to win handsomely anyway.
However, Baines has developed into an all-round footballer of genuine quality. His defensive positioning and awareness has improved dramatically, while his lung-busting runs down the flanks and expert set-piece delivery – England’s best set-piece expert since Beckham – makes him a potent weapon hard to ignore.
This is backed up by the statistics, which show that Baines made more tackles, clearances, key passes, dribbles and total passes than Cole last season, with the same pattern emerging so far this year.
Despite those numbers, Three Lions boss Hodgson has still favoured Cole in the big games – highlighted by Baines’ appearance from the start against Moldova last month while Cole was brought in for the trip to Ukraine four days later.
In fairness to Hodgson, given there has been no real depreciation in Cole’s game you can understand why he is keen to utilise his vast international experience in those crucial matches. Plus, unlike Baines, Cole has Champions League experience and plenty of medals in the cabinet to prove his worth.
But with the former Arsenal man sidelined with a rib injury Hodgson has no choice but to promote Baines to the starting XI for the game against Montenegro on Friday and, should Cole not recover in time, Poland on Tuesday.
If Baines can re-create his sparkling Everton form in an England shirt and help them qualify for the World Cup, he will have sent out a message that Hodgson will struggle to ignore; meaning a starting spot in the side may be signed, sealed and delivered by the time England touch down in Rio next June.