Renewed Cole heading for the top
"Hot in here, isn't it?" Approaching midnight in the press area beneath the Parc des Princes, Joe Cole pads his brow in mock exasperation. Even if the stuffy indoors is in stark contrast to the bitter chill of Parisian winter, it might be cumulative, as the England international has experienced his fair share of warmth since arriving in France at the summer transfer window's last knockings.
The French have really taken to the loanee from Liverpool; his uncommonly-English flair, his bustling industry and even his game stabs at the basics of the language in post-match interviews have endeared him to the public. It's not, sadly for him, something that appears entirely mirrored back home, with Cole now appearing to accept he won't be back in the white of England at Euro 2012.
"It's a long way off for me," he concedes, hiding any latent bitterness well. "I'm realistic about that, because I don't think anyone's even come out to watch me play. But I'm an Englishman, and if I get the chance ... I've played 56 times for my country, it's very important to me and I love it, but you can only do what you can do, and it's out of your hands."
What is firmly in his grasp is the present, and shaping the destiny of this exciting Lille side as they seek to defend their championship. A confident performance at the home of Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday showed just what a strong collective Cole is currently part of. The three-time Premier League title winner knows what makes champions, and senses Lille's pedigree will mean even the wealthy PSG will find it hard to make them buckle.
"I feel we're the best team in the league," he says matter-of-factly, "and I wouldn't say that unless I believed it, but we have to go and prove that. It's a good result for us, because we've only lost one game so far [Lille are on a 16-match unbeaten run in Ligue 1], and we're only two points off the top, with Paris and Montpellier still to play at home. We thought (in the) second half we were the better side with better chances, but we're happy with the result. I thought maybe we deserved a bit more. The truth is we're two points behind at the moment so we've got work to do. There's three competitions we're in, and we're going to try and win all three."
It's an ambitious aim, with PSG set to spend heavily again in January after a near-€100 million transfer splash in the summer. Yet it's hard to see how more changes will bridge the gap between PSG's individualities and the collective that Lille coach Rudi Garcia has built over three previous seasons in charge.
"I don't want to get into the habit of talking about other teams," Cole stresses, "but I know they've spent a lot of money and there's going to be a lot of pressure on them. It's very difficult." That pressure is expected to quickly tell on Garcia's Parisian counterpart Antoine Kombouaré, with Claude Makélélé, an advisor to the board, linked with becoming a short-term fix. "I know Makélélé from my time at Chelsea and he's a real leader and a really good man to have around," Cole says. "But my only concern is Lille and helping my team."
Cole is glad to be under a man with a plan in Garcia, who adroitly persuaded him in their transfer talks that he would have the opportunity to express himself as never before in northern France, and the midfielder hasn't been disappointed. "He's brilliant," Cole enthuses. "He's a top manager. It's completely different to how I've been brought up to play, and it takes time to adjust. It's been an eye-opener. The guys are such good players, and good technically, in the French way."
Garcia's highly attractive, intuitive style has seen Lille dubbed a 'mini-Barcelona' in the French media, and if Cole has taken an unlikely route to an unlikely destination, it's perhaps where he was always destined to fulfil himself. "It's a great way of playing and it really suits me," he says. "I'm learning all the time. It's different, but I'm very happy and the main thing is we're winning games."
Part of that fulfilment stems from his uncanny technical understanding with Eden Hazard. Ten years Cole's junior at just 20, the Belgian forward voted France Football's best foreign player of 2011 last week has found a kindred spirit in the England man, and the feeling is mutual. "He's a top player," Cole nods. "I don't want to keep putting pressure on him, but he seems like the sort of character who can deal with it all. He's just a fantastic talent. He can go on and become one of the best players in the world for sure." As a man who has always exuded such a wholly genuine enthusiasm for the game, Cole is enjoying growing into a nurturing role in such an energetic group, and is not about to start beating down Garcia's door if he is rotated.
"This is a squad game now," he shrugs. "We've made good ground, the team's settling down, and we've got Benoit (Pedretti) to come back from injury, Dimitri (Payet)'s getting stronger every game after his knee operation, and Eden is on fire." Cole feels the potential for growth is there, saying Lille were "very unlucky in Europe, I thought. Maybe inexperience cost us at the end. If we can manage just 5% more (improvement) in the next six months, then we can be champions."
It would be some way to arrive at the club's new, 50,000-capacity Grand Stade Lille Métropole, as they will next summer. "The stadium looks sensational," Cole says. But will he be there to christen their new home? He is coy. "It's a really well-run club," he says. "I've only got good words to say about everyone here, and I'm very happy." After the trials of recent years, that's more than enough for now.