Everton’s 4-3 FA Cup fourth round penalty shootout victory over Chelsea on Saturday saw two of England’s premier left-backs in action – Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines. With England’s head coach Fabio Capello watching on it was Baines’ 119th minute free-kick that took the game to penalties, where David Moyes’ side eventually triumphed in an evenly-matched encounter.
The moment the ball sailed past Petr Cech was arguably the most high-profile moment of excellence from Baines during a season full of impressive performances and telling contributions. The 26-year-old scores far more than an orthodox full-back and got his name on the score sheet for the fourth time in 2010/11 on Saturday, following important goals against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, making him the joint-highest scoring left-back in the top flight behind Liam Ridgewell, a converted centre-back – Gareth Bale has more, and Kieran Richardson has as many, but have both played in more attacking positions for much of the season. On Saturday, The
Cole could reasonably be expected to contribute such numbers himself, given his oft-stated importance to Chelsea’s tactical set-up. Henry Winter wrote in the Daily Telegraph “With Chelsea using a diamond, Cole provides the width on the left…no full-back contributes so much in the final third, even scoring, while never forgetting his primary responsibility is to prevent crosses and goals.” But while Cole may have contributed greatly to Chelsea’s excellent defensive record in his 31 league appearances – the Blues have conceded only 22 goals, the fewest of anyone in the top five – he has yet to find the net this season and has four assists to his name, compared to Baines’ four goals and nine assists. It should be noted that Cole’s barren season is not characteristic – since making his debut for Arsenal in November 1999 Cole has scored 16 goals, compared to Baines’ 11 since October 2002 – but Chelsea have scored 10 and 11 goals less than Arsenal and Manchester United respectively this season.
Baines was allowed to rampage up Chelsea’s right wing by the lack of a genuine right-sided midfielder in the system Ancelotti began with. Cole had no such freedom in Everton’s formation – zonalmarking.net noted: “Baines had space to exploit down the left, as always and… he didn’t produce as many chances with his crossing here, he was still an outlet,” adding: “Chelsea’s width and main threat came from full-back, but with Cole tracked by [Seamus] Coleman…Chelsea didn’t threaten much.” And despite both men missing from 12 yards, Baines’ equalising goal and Everton’s progression to the fifth round ensured it was the pretender to the Three Lions No 3 shirt and not the incumbent that caught the eye.