Of all the miraculous feats of escapology and unyielding defiance that characterised Chelsea’s journey to become kings of Europe in 2012, the single defining turning point can be traced back to a goal line clearance.
Chelsea had already successfully negotiated a stirring must-win game at home past Valencia on match day six in the group stages to barely make it into the round of 16, where they faced Walter Mazzarri’s enterprising and fearless Napoli.
Despite taking the lead through Juan Mata in the first half, Napoli roared back to be leading 3-1 and on the verge of a near unassailable 4-1 advantage at the Stadio San Paolo with ten mins remaining in the game.
Enter Ashley Cole.
As Napoli charged on the counter against a deflated and seemingly defeated Chelsea defence scrambling to stay in the tie, Christian Maggio somehow failed to score inside the six-yard box with just Ashley Cole to beat.
In what has become a trademark over the years, Cole’s brilliant intervention – defending on literally the last line and repelling a potentially fatal fourth goal with a remarkable reactionary save with the feet – would be a seminal moment in Chelsea’s fortunes for the rest of the competition.
Without Cole’s clearance, Branislav Ivanovic’s winner probably doesn’t happen, nor do Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba’s heroics en route to etching themselves in Blues folklore.
Had that goal gone in, we could be looking at Chelsea’s hallowed spine a little differently as the nearly men in Europe and – crucially – it would have prevented the passing of the baton to Eden Hazard to lead Chelsea into the future.
Just as the talismanic Hazard has departed, the man who made his arrival possible has called time on a tremendous 20-year career that has seen him play under the likes of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello.
Three Premier League titles, a record seven FA Cups, a member of Arsenal’s Invincibles and a Champions League winner, the former Arsenal defender has been a serial winner over the years.
Four PFA team of the year selections and two UEFA team of the year recognitions are surprisingly underwhelming given the calibre of player Cole was for the majority of his career – the best left back in the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s battle with Cole during Euro 2004 and throughout the years in the Premier League with both Arsenal and Chelsea were tantalising individual duels, which Cole for the most part got the better of. It is no surprise that the Portuguese icon and an all-time great of the game declares the Englishmen as his toughest opponent.
Many will point to Ronaldo’s former team-mate Patrice Evra and put forward a formidable case for the Frenchman to be the better player over their time in England and as a whole. After all, Evra has won more Premier League titles (five to three) and trophies overall (15 to 13), as well as reaching five Champions League finals compared to Cole’s three. However, the difference in numbers is almost negligible, so we have to dig a little deeper into impact, value and intangibles.
Make no mistake about it, Evra was an outstanding player over an equally long career and was the worthy successor to Denis Irwin that Sir Alex Ferguson craved. Had Gabriel Heinze never been injured in 2005/06, we may never have seen Evra arrive on English shores but what an upgrade he ended up being with his blend of athleticism, pace, tenacity and defensive nous.
However, United’s team at the time was possibly Ferguson’s greatest, with Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo at its centre. Given the strength of the United team around 2006-2010, Evra’s value and impact was not as critical to United as Cole’s contributions were to Chelsea.
United were stable under Ferguson, whereas Cole had to navigate seven managers in eight seasons at Chelsea. Whether it was learning to curb his attacking instincts under Jose Mourinho in a more regimented approach or providing the crucial width under Carlo Ancelotti’s narrower diamond to help win the double in 2010, Cole has adapted his game to excel at different styles required in his position.
He is also a technically more accomplished player than Evra given his years spent playing higher up the pitch in his youth and developed a penchant for picking up big scalps when looking at his record against Ronaldo and Barcelona.
It is this perfect marriage of devastating attacking brilliance forged under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, and the defensive excellence honed under Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s impregnable defence alongside John Terry and Petr Cech, that gives Cole unprecedented pedigree as Europe’s finest left back.
He has also shown a phenomenal level of resilience and will power to overcome public condemnation and hatred that has plagued most of his career as revelations about his private life took centre stage. Yes, that is self-inflicted, but it should never meddle in the conversation of on-field performance and achievements.
Cole’s media commitments paint him in a much more positive light as an articulate, thoughtful and measured individual that is poles apart from the arrogant and obnoxious person the tabloid media made him out to be.
One of the few England players from the golden generation to hold his own at international level and live up to the hype, his 107 caps, three World Cups and two European championship appearances mark Cole out as being genuinely world-class in his prime.
So what is it that made Cole so reliable at the back and special on the ball? He was an outstanding reader of the game defensively, which helped him make the right decisions whether it was to make a decisive challenge to win the ball, or jockey a player into a less threatening position with his positional sense.
His snuffing out of danger with last ditch blocks, challenges and clearances are all the more formidable thanks to Cole’s defensive elasticity, a unique gift that owes much to his impressive physique. He is built powerfully for his size and has an exceptional engine, but it is his flexibility and agility to match the equally agile attackers who twist and turn so menacingly on the ball with their exaggerated manipulation of their movements and feints which have never really troubled the former Chelsea man.
This has made him almost unbeatable one on one – you can’t beat him for outright pace, nor can you dupe him into over-committing. His transformation into defensive stalwart at Stamford Bridge from the days of galloping up and down the left hand side at Highbury in support of Robert Pires and Thierry Henry is an evolution that has made him a more rounded and complete player.
On the ball, Cole was a revolutionary figure in England as the first fullback who excelled more in possession rather negating the opposition. His pace, technical ability and intelligence on the ball made him a genuine threat to the opposition as clubs began to profile more attacking fullbacks to meet the demands of modernity.
Above all, Cole’s calmness and assuredness on the ball against the likes of Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona side illustrates just how technically sound he was and how vital he was in starting attacks from deep and supplementing a Chelsea pragmatism that benefited greatly from Cole’s attacking spark.
Some of the greats in years gone by such as Giacinto Facchetti, Andreas Brehme, Paul Breitner, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Carlos, Kenny Sansom and Stuart Pearce have been some of the all-time greats in Cole’s position.
Perhaps Cole’s inability to win a World Cup will ultimately prevent him from being recognised as the best of all time, but his longevity, achievements and completeness as a player make him a worthy name in all-time conversations.
However, when it comes to his generation, there was none better than the indefatigable and indomitable Ashley Cole.