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Mar 24, 2011

Cause celebre to lost cause

The journey from cause celebre to forgotten man took nine months. Last summer, as England exited the World Cup with a desperate lack of invention, Joe Cole assumed the role of the overlooked saviour. Now he is simply ignored: the right-footed, left-sided player called up by Fabio Capello these days is Matt Jarvis. One of the greatest talents of his generation has been displaced by a footballer discarded by Millwall and who spent four years languishing at Gillingham.

This time, there has been no outcry - quite right, too, because while Jarvis has flourished for Wolves this season, Cole has floundered at Liverpool. Far from the creative fulcrum imagined when he signed, he has been marginalised by misfortune and poor form. A stop-start season of suspension, injury and underachievement may have reached its effective end, barring blink-and-you-miss-it cameos such as his appearance at Sunderland on Sunday. It is tempting to conclude that his Liverpool career is similarly doomed.

While it is often presumed that flair players are likeminded souls, Cole is yet to begin a league game under Kenny Dalglish. Roy Hodgson's farewell at Blackburn was his last start against domestic opposition. He has, however, figured prominently in all four Europa League games under the Scot. As Liverpool scored a solitary goal in that time and rarely threatened any others, that is no recommendation. The sight of Cole's usually excellent touch deserting him and, less surprisingly, his legs failing to generate the required speed when sent clear against Sparta Prague was sadly symbolic: his flaws are more evident, his supposed strengths no longer advantages.

He may have a lucrative four-year contract, but the long-term prognosis is bleak. Cole's involvement in Europe was an indirect consequence of Luis Suarez's ineligibility for the Europa League, Steven Gerrard's absence from continental competition since November and, initially, Andy Carroll's lack of fitness.

As Dalglish's side takes shape, it is hard to see where Cole fits in. Much as he covets a free role in the middle, both Gerrard and Raul Meireles display more potency as the striker's sidekick. Moreover, with the signings of Suarez and Carroll and a reinvigorated Dirk Kuyt's deployment as an out-and-out forward against Manchester United, Dalglish is looking likelier than either Hodgson or Rafa Benitez to field a partnership in attack. Unless a midfield diamond is chosen, that doesn't allow for a central creator who is spared defensive responsibilities as well.

That leaves the flanks. Dalglish shares his predecessors' appreciation for Kuyt's efforts on the right, so the Dutchman remains an automatic choice there when not leading the line. On the left, both Meireles - when played out of position - and a quietly effective Maxi Rodriguez are ahead of Cole in the queue.

In addition, Carroll's arrival signposted Liverpool's priorities in the summer transfer market. While the target man benefited from Joey Barton's excellent deliveries from set-pieces and a withdrawn role on the right at Newcastle, the probability is that an out-and-out winger will be required at Anfield. As Kuyt, Rodriguez and Meireles are all better equipped to play on the right, logic suggests it will be a left winger, too.

It would remedy a longstanding weakness. In his first two starts, the £35 million man has had to head too many diagonal balls from the full backs, while Liverpool have long lacked width. The recent tradition of right-footers drifting infield has worked sporadically and brought goals at times for Yossi Benayoun, Danny Murphy and Steve McManaman but, while Patrik Berger and Albert Riera had their moments, the last outstanding natural winger was John Barnes.

Over the years, Cole's propensity to veer away from the touchline has become more pronounced, perhaps indicating a lack of confidence about his ability to beat a defender on the outside. But a total of one assist this season - for Fernando Torres against Blackburn - indicates a lack of productivity. Stylistically and statistically, the case for Cole is weak.

It was something the manager supposedly responsible for his recruitment recognised. Before his departure, Hodgson had begun to argue that Christian Purslow, the former managing director, set up the deal and he merely rubberstamped it.

The beneficiaries, seemingly, are those who did not sign him last summer. Given Sir Alex Ferguson's longstanding admiration (the Scot was said to ask Harry Redknapp about Cole every time they spoke during the 29-year-old's teenage years), there was some surprise when he did not enter the bidding. Even if his choice of Bebe as an extra option on the flanks can be criticised, the Manchester United manager has been vindicated in his inaction. Tottenham, meanwhile, were unsuccessful in their approach in what was perceived a coup for Liverpool. Had Cole signed, however, would they have moved for Rafael van der Vaart? In the final reckoning, it may be deemed their luckiest escape of the year.

So, now, for the second time in 12 months, Cole finds himself at a crossroads. Like Hodgson, whose fortunes were intertwined with his own, his reputation fell far and fast. If Anfield's Cockney revolution was ill-fated from the off, the same might be said of a Liverpool career that commenced inauspiciously with a red card on Cole's league debut. Concealed though it has been, the ability remains. Yet as the opportunity to display it seems to be passing, barring an unexpected renaissance, his selection hopes may have gone from cause celebre to lost cause.

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