Leighton Baines was named as one of three left-backs in Fabio Capello’s 30-man preliminaryWorld
There is a temptation to assume Baines is under consideration for a slot in the final 23 almost by default after the retirement of Wayne Bridge, but the 25-year-old is most definitely there on merit. Having made 16 England U-21 appearances, Baines graduated to the senior side in March this year, playing the full 90 minutes in England’s 3-1 victory over Egypt and proving to any doubters that he was of international class. The form that took him into England reckoning prior to March continued through to May, as Baines was a star performer in an Everton side that surged up the league table from 16th in December to eighth in the final reckoning, and the only left-back who could possibly match Baines’ importance to his team is the only one in front of him in the England queue, newly-crowned Premier League champion Cole. Both defenders offer valuable attacking outlets to their club sides – indeed, Baines is often Everton’s most potent forward weapon, when his link with Stephen Pienaar is in full flight and has nine assists to his name this season, compared to Cole’s four and Warnock’s three.
Baines’ consistency throughout the 2009/10 season has been the most remarkable part of his game. Having missed just one league game – away to Bolton Wanderers in October – and just four games overall out of a possible 52, a number second only to goalkeeper Tim Howard, Baines barely put a foot wrong between August and April, until his careless back pass gave Fulham the lead at Goodison Park in the last game of the latter month. But that one slip was not nearly enough to erase a season’s worth of steady – and often times spectacular – performances during which his dynamic overlapping runs and reliable crossing played a major part in not only the fine results Everton achieved since January but also the thrilling style in which they arrived. Baines does not shirk his defensive duties either, showing admirable stamina to return to his left-back station after his latest surging run forward and, as the defender who featured most regularly for the Blues, became a key defensive organiser despite his introverted nature. Baines’ contributions to the Everton cause were recognised with a runner-up spot in Everton’s Fan’s Player of the Year awards, and, perhaps most tellingly, first place in the Player’s Player of the Year voting.
Should Baines get the nod to start in South Africa – for he surely has to be considered the favourite to make the final cut ahead of Warnock – he is unlikely to be fazed by the challenge. Having gone from the second division with Wigan Athletic in 2003 to the Premier League in 2005, and European football with Everton in 2007, a role with England at this year’s World Cup is the next logical step.