Baines deserves England chance on merit

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

Michael Regan/The FA/Getty ImagesLeighton Baines has an opportunity with England with Ashley Cole out with injury.

Under normal circumstances -- never mind the prospect of two upcoming World Cup qualifiers worthy of 'must win' status -- the last thing any manager wants is an injury to one of the first names on his team sheet. In England's instance, however, the injury to Ashley Cole serves up the unusual scenario whereby the understudy is widely considered to be the better player.

Subsequent to Fabio Capello inexplicably leaving him to watch the 2010 World Cup from his living room, with the Italian preferring the somewhat agricultural qualities offered by Stephen Warnock, Leighton Baines has gradually overtaken Cole in terms of ability and consistency.

Playing at the highest level throughout his career, Cole trumps his positional rival on experience, yet, as many Evertonians will attest, with Phil Neville masquerading in midfield the most prominent recent example -- experience can only count for so much in football.

Cole continues to operate at the top of the game, which is evident by his constant presence in a Chelsea side fighting for the league title, but Baines has bypassed Cole on all-around ability, especially in the opposing half.

-Hodgson not contemplating failure

In the ever-evolving modern game, the role of full-back takes on greater importance. When the so-called minnows park the proverbial bus, England struggle to break the deadlock -- this is when Baines can influence proceedings.

Capable of providing the crossing and set-piece delivery lacking since the retirement of David Beckham, Baines adds another dimension thanks to his ability to fashion chances and goals for both team-mates and himself.

There is, however, one small problem, and it is a problem prominent in many of Baines’ 19 caps to date. Accompanied by the tireless and effective Steven Pienaar in the weekly travails of the Premier League, the work of his diminutive team-mate provides the platform for Baines to exert his authority on matches.

When playing in the white of England, though, Baines tends to find himself in the company of a forward out of position or a conventional winger displaying the attacking nous of a headless chicken. As a result, many forward runs go unnoticed. England must ensure the talents of Baines are utilised properly, as others pale by comparison on creativity.

Although light-years behind Cole on the cap front, with the Chelsea defender boasting 105 to Baines’ 19, the England assists column further underlines his creative quality. Baines (5) is just two England assists behind Cole (7) despite 86 fewer international appearances.

Even so, while the undoubted strength of Baines is as a marauding forward, the defensive aspects, something once viewed as a weakness, now stack up just as impressively. The form that returned an Everton team-high 92 tackles last season has followed on into the current campaign.

Averaging three tackles per game, Baines is currently operating at an 85.71 percent tackle success rate. Completing 18 of 21 tackles, Baines easily outstrips the figures delivered by Cole to this point, with Cole posting 76.92 percent accuracy from his 13 tackles.

Previously suspect against pacy wingers, especially in the early stages of his Everton career, the Toffees man has improved significantly in this regard. The early numbers from this season support that view -- three opposing players have dribbled past Baines at club level compared to the six getting the better of Cole.

Matching Cole defensively -- the area that once gave Cole a considerable edge -- Baines easily wins out in advanced areas. This chance, which has arisen through injury, should have materialised on form alone. Those viewing Baines as the best in the country appear on the rise, but on current, slightly baffling evidence Baines must convince one of the few who does not -- Roy Hodgson.

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