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The 31-year-old is set to return to the scene of his greatest performances on Sunday, providing a sad reminder of how injuries snuffed out the career of a unique talent

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By Liam Twomey

On this weekend seven years ago, in November 2005, life was very good for Joe Cole.
 
Chelsea’s 40-game unbeaten run in the Premier League had been brought to a crashing halt at Old Trafford a few days earlier, but Jose Mourinho’s men remained firmly in control of a title race they would ultimately win by a comfortable eight-point margin.

Having pushed the disappointment to the back of his mind, Cole was preparing with the rest of Sven Goran-Eriksson’s England squad to take on Argentina in a glamour friendly in Geneva, as the Three Lions sought the toughest tests around to steel themselves for a World Cup campaign that summer.

The match itself turned out to be a thriller, with goals from Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen cancelling out strikes from Hernan Crespo and Walter Samuel before Cole, on as a substitute, curled a devilish ball into the box from the left for Owen to head a dramatic injury-time winner. Not the worst way to mark the birthday he had celebrated four days earlier.

Cole had already emerged as one of the stalwarts of a seemingly-invincible Chelsea side, and was fast gaining universal assent as the solution to England’s long-debated left-wing problem. As a boy at West Ham he had quickly come to be regarded as the most flamboyantly gifted English midfielder since Paul Gascoigne, and now, having just turned 24, it appeared he was becoming a man.

COLE'S STEADY DECLINE

 NUMBER OF LEAGUE APPEARANCES
05/06: CHELSEA
06/07: CHELSEA
07/08: CHELSEA
08/09: CHELSEA
09/10: CHELSEA
10/11: LIVERPOOL
11/12: LILLE (LOAN)
34
14
33
14
26
20
31
He returns to Stamford Bridge with Liverpool on Sunday three days after celebrating another birthday – his 31st. As he warms up on the pitch before the game, he may well acknowledge the thousands in the stands who once adored him, and will doubtless be warmly applauded in return.

If Brendan Rodgers even picks him to be on the team bus, that is.

The past seven years have not been kind to Joe Cole. That dazzling campaign as the creative hub of Mourinho’s Chelsea, followed by a virtuoso showing at the 2006 World Cup which featured a sensational 30-yard volley against Sweden, should have been the springboard to greatness. Instead, it proved the zenith of a career which ignited all too briefly before fizzling out.

Of course, there have been memorable moments along the way: winners against Blackburn and Everton in December 2007 and January 2008 which helped keep Chelsea in the title race and got them to the League Cup final; the impudent flick against Manchester United at Old Trafford in April 2010 which propelled the Blues to victory and, ultimately, a third Premier League crown.

But, on the whole, the path Cole has trodden since his golden season has been downhill. Muscular injuries and stress fractures slowed his progress, before every footballer’s worst nightmare, the dreaded cruciate ligament rupture, struck in an FA Cup tie against Southend in January 2009.

“I believe that with his spirit, Joe will come back to Chelsea even better than before," Blues boss Luiz Felipe Scolari confidently predicted. Cole comfortably outlasted the Brazilian at Stamford Bridge, but could not justify such optimism in the remainder of his time in west London.

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Chelsea lost patience with him in the summer of 2010, and Liverpool swooped. Roy Hodgson described it as a coup. Steven Gerrard eagerly proclaimed his new team-mate “better than Messi”. But while Cole’s mind was as bright and willing as ever, his body refused to oblige. Injury struck again, and the positivity soon drained away.

Farmed across the Channel to surprise French champions Lille, Cole’s early form hinted at an Indian summer. Charming the locals with his cheeky grin and willingness to learn the language off the field while linking up seamlessly with resident superstar Eden Hazard on it, he appeared to be genuinely re-discovering his joie de vivre, as well as finding out what it meant.

But the revival was not to last. Cole’s season faded along with Lille’s and, in May, he found himself at another career crossroads as he watched many of his former Chelsea team-mates finally consummate their eight-year unrequited love affair with the Champions League on the television.

On his return to Merseyside, there was once more hope that he could flourish under the guidance of Rodgers, a man who prizes ball mastery and vision above all else. Five disappointing performances later, however, and he appears doomed to life on the fringes of the top level.

If Cole does make the trip to Stamford Bridge, he will see a very different place to the one he left two years ago. Chelsea are now a club which prizes artistry as well as success and, in Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, they boast three sublime talents who play with the freedom, brilliance and conviction he himself exhibited at his very best.

Unfortunately Chelsea fans, too, will see a very different Joe Cole.

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