News that Chelsea's Ashley Cole may be available on a free transfer has sparked the inevitable 'best left-back' descriptions of the England defender. The defender has been playing at the highest level and winning trophies for over ten years now, both at Stamford Bridge and Arsenal, and is only two caps shy of the illustrious 100 for England. Yet other top class left-sided fullbacks do exist, even if they're often often overlooked in favour of the Chelsea man by British pundits. talkSPORT look at other contenders for the title in an attempt to try and answer the question...
Name: Jordi Alba
International appearances: 13
Honours: UEFA European Football Championship (2012)
Strengths: With his combination of acceleration, skill and strong finishing ability, Jordi Alba is a tricky customer to defend against. His goal against Italy in the Euro 2012 final exhibited that perfectly, with Alba helping to start off a move that ended with him bursting from midfield beyond the Italian defence then slotting the ball past Buffon. Opposition players find it difficult to rob the ball from the Barcelona man due to his low centre of gravity, and his speed helps him cover behind when asked to defend. The Catalan started off as a number ten in Barca's youth ranks and has retained all of the skill needed to play in that position, meaning he can use a quick trick to best an opponent if speed isn't working.
Weaknesses: Alba's smaller stature means he's virtually useless when defending set plays; with Barcelona particularly lacking height when Gerard Pique is absent, their left-back doesn't add much to the cause from corners or free kicks.
Club: Real Madrid
International appearances: 16
Honours: La Liga (x3), Copa del Rey, Olympic Silver Medal (2012)
Strengths: When it comes to beating an opponent with skill and trickery Marcelo is second-to-none, with the Brazilian's quick feet and intelligence on the ball often a source of creativity for Real Madrid. The Madrid man is also two-footed and has scored driven and curled strikes alike with both feet. Just ask Manchester City, who were recently on the receiving end of his right foot in the Champions League.
Weaknesses: To say the Brazilian suffers defensively would be an understatement and, though he has improved dramatically under Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid's left flank is still often the best area to exploit for opponents. His positional naivety cost Madrid dearly in a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2011 and, when combined with his petulant side, it can prove particularly costly.
Name: Ashley Cole
International appearances: 98 (England)
Honours: Premier League (x3), FA Cup (x7), UEFA Champions League (2012)
Strengths: A brilliant all-rounder, Cole has been equally dependable in both attack defence throughout his career, though his attacking influence has somewhat dulled in recent years. For the majority of his career Cole has scored at least one goal per season, with his highest ever tally of four coming in the 2009/10 season, and at the other end of the pitch he has looked assured when asked to play a more subdued role. His quick reactions were crucial in Chelsea's scrappy but historic 2012 Champions League final victory.
Weaknesses: Cole's goal tally has dropped in recent years, with the fullback looking less adventurous going forward and often opting for caution rather than his buccaneering runs of old. While this could either be a sign of his age, Roberto Di Matteo's tactics, or a combination of both, it is nonetheless an area in which he isn't particularly effective these days, making him less complete than in the past. Cole also tends to prefer running into space, as he isn't an exceptional dribbler, and is reluctant to engage in close passing interchanges in tight spaces.
Name: Philipp Lahm
Club: Bayern Munich
International appearances: 93
Honours: Bundesliga (x4), DFB-Pokal (x4)
Strengths: Lahm's inclusion may be somewhat contentious given he prefers to play at right-back, but the German has played on the left side consistently throughout his career, particularly for his country, and was chosen in that position for the 2006 UEFA Team of the Year. His performance against Arjen Robben during Germany's clash with Holland at Euro 2012 was a perfect example of his qualities in defence, with the Dutchman's pace rendered useless against Lahm's faultless positioning. Lahm is comfortable crossing the ball on his left side to the degree that it's difficult to call it his weaker foot, and has goals to his name while playing left-back at international level.
Weaknesses: Though not necessarily a weakness, it's difficult to compare Lahm fairly to the others listed given that he only tends to play on the left side for his country and not his club these days, meaning he has far fewer games in the position and therefore far less opportunities to make mistakes. None the less, whenever he does play, he looks assured.
Name: Fabio Coentrao
Club: Real Madrid
International appearances: 28
Honours: Portuguese League, Portuguese League Cup, Spanish League
Strengths: Coentrao became the most desired left back in Europe after a standout display for Portugal at the 2010 World Cup, but despite a big money move to Real Madrid, he has never been given consistent game time in the Spanish capital due to Marcelo's presence in his position. Quick off the mark, physically strong and a decent crosser of the ball, the Portuguese isn't shy of a tackle either, and has the timing to go with his desire to win the ball.
Weaknesses: The left-back has looked less assured in recent times with Real Madrid, though it's perhaps unfair to judge him too harshly given that he hasn't been given a string of games at any length that could help him regain match fitness. Coentrao is also fairly unspectacular in attack and, though he has an eye for a cross, his goalscoring form has dried up in recent seasons and doesn't rival that of Marcelo or Jordi Alba.
Reaching a conclusion on who the best left-back in the world is depends on your definition of 'best'. If the players are to be judged purely on their defensive capabilities, then Ashley Cole and Philip Lahm pull ahead of the pack. In terms of attacking potency, Cole falls away behind the likes of Marcelo and Jordi Alba, with the Englishman's best days as a marauding full-back looking numbered. Had Fabio Coentrao been able to continue his international form at Real Madrid he would stake a solid claim as an all-rounder.
It's perhaps easier to eliminate those who can't be considered the best than it is to decide on one player to take the crown. Marcelo's defensive frailties remove him from the fold, while Lahm and Coentrao haven't played enough minutes in the position in recent years to make a fair comparison. Based on that criteria it's a two-way fight between Cole and Alba, and the answer probably depends on your perspective. Does Cole's crossing and solid positioning trump Alba's skill in dribbling and brilliant link up play, or does Alba's speed and ability to keep the ball nullify the Chelsea man's physical robustness? It's a classic apples against oranges scenario, but what is clear is that both are at the top of their game and will be difficult to catch for any challengers.
Do you agree? Is the title of best left-back in the world between Jordi Alba and Ashley Cole, or is there a name we forgot? Comment below and have your say...