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Aug 31, 2011

Can Lille answer Joe Cole riddle?

If international friendlies really are as meaningless as many suggest nowadays, try telling Joe Cole. England's March 2002 friendly with Italy at Elland Road, in which he won his third cap, has coloured perception of him within his home country ever since.

After England took the lead through Robbie Fowler, then-West Ham midfielder Cole got caught overplaying in his own half, leading to a Vincenzo Montella equaliser. England went on to lose 2-1, and that was pretty much the last we saw of Cole in central midfield. He didn't start a competitive international until three years later, when he opened the scoring in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Northern Ireland. Cole played the game on the left of midfield.

The good, nay excellent news for the 29-year-old is that this probably won't be asked of him by Lille's coach Rudi Garcia. Despite the loss of Gervinho, the northerners are pretty well covered on the flanks, with France international Dimitri Payet having arrived from Saint-Etienne to replace the tricky Ivorian. The iconic Eden Hazard tends to at least start games wide on the left (periodically swapping with Payet for effect), and Cole will certainly not be taking the Belgian's spot. The greyhound-like Pole Ireneusz Jelen, who signed on a free on Tuesday, is another candidate to play wide in a front three.

Newcastle United fans who have been impressed by Yohan Cabaye's bright start in the Premier League will appreciate just what a blow his departure was for Garcia, and his erstwhile role is exactly where Cole can make a difference. Lille are sometimes referred to as the 'mini-Barcelona' in France, and that comparison - if rather laboured - is informed by the quality of their central midfield. It is underpinned by their captain, the combative defensive sentinel Rio Mavuba, who always has two good passers in front of him. They are usually Florent Balmont and new signing Benoit Pedretti.

Yet there are have been questions over both in the season's opening stanza. Now 31, there is some doubt whether the inventive Balmont can last for 50-odd games in what promises to be an exacting season for Lille. Pedretti is a seasoned former France international with 22 caps, but he has failed in his two biggest club challenges before now, at Marseille and Lyon. He was Auxerre's main creator last season, but has had a mixed start in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and doesn't cover ground with the urgency of Cabaye.

If Cole is to prove himself as a more energetic option, he clearly has some work to do, having played just 60 times in the last three Premier League seasons, but he will have help in whipping himself into shape. It is a must - as at their best, Lille surge forward together rather than merely moving - but he has the splendid facilities of the €19 million Le Domaine de Luchin training centre at his disposal, which Cole himself described at his presentation as "magnificent". He has the full belief of the club, who described themselves in the official statement announcing the first full England international to move to France since Trevor Steven left Rangers for Marseille twenty years ago as "proud that (our) project has attracted a player of this magnitude."

If Cole had to be compared with any of the previous handful of Englishmen to play in France, the obvious choice would be Glenn Hoddle. The two players have a lot in common; extravagantly gifted, often misused and certainly under-appreciated, essentially two fish out of water in their native land. Despite never fulfilling his potential with England, Hoddle was a huge hit with Monaco, winning the Ligue 1 title and a Coupe de France in a four-year spell in the Principality. He also soaked up all he could from then-manager Arsene Wenger, who was a huge fan of the Englishman. Cole, who has a rare tactical acumen for an English player, has a good chance of forming a similar bond with the dynamic Garcia.

For his entire career so far, coaches and teams have tried to change the essence of what Cole is and make him into something else. He hoped Liverpool would be the chance to break the chain, but arrived to find his preferred position in central midfield flooded with alternative options.

Previously, it seemed for a while that Jose Mourinho could make him into the perfect modern midfielder, a hybrid of the illuminating and the industrious. Cole was never scared of hard work, but Mourinho's 'no stars' mentality was always likely to knock a great deal of the magic out of him.

After Cole came on to score the winning goal against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in October 2004, he earned a stinging rebuke from his boss rather than praise. "He gave us dynamism when he came on,'' said Mourinho at the time, "but after he scored his game finished. I needed 11 players to work for the team and I only had ten. If he wants to be a regular for England he needs to improve and be part of the team's defensive organisation. He needs to make an impact on me - not the crowd."

''Joe has two faces. One is beautiful and one I don't like," Mourinho concluded. Cole is likely to find during his time in northern France that Garcia's definition of 'beautiful' veers significantly from the Portuguese's. Much will be expected of him, but he will be invited to take the lead, rather than be dictated to, and will find kindred spirits in the likes of Hazard and Payet.

The biggest question regarding Cole's move abroad is perhaps why he didn't do it sooner. While not an arrogant man, he has always known he was different, and that perhaps his natural place was elsewhere. "I like international football," he said, just before his Chelsea exit. "The tempo, the style - I'm happy to be there." Maybe finally finding what he has always been looking for will provide an Indian summer in the career of an incandescent talent that has never been able to fully flourish.

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