Ashley Cole faces a race against time to be fit for the World Cup finals after it was announced yesterday he will be out of action for approximately three months after fracturing his left ankle in Wednesday's match against Everton. The England left-back limped off the pitch in the second half after picking up the injury in a challenge with Landon Donovan.
It means Cole faces a fight to regain his fitness in time for England's opening game against the United States on June 12. The news will come as a huge blow to Fabio Capello, the England manager, who is already without the injured Kieran Gibbs while there are doubts over Wayne Bridge's participation following John Terry's alleged affair with his former partner. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger, Cole's former manager, cut a forlorn figure for much of this week.
The Arsenal manager had come underfire from pundits, his own fans, and Michael Ballack, the Chelsea midfielder, after being comprehensively beaten by their championship rivals Manchester United and the Blues in their previous two games. The latter had claimed Arsenal were too predictable and that Wenger was full of excuses after Sunday's game at Stamford Bridge. Indeed Wenger looked a rattled man on Tuesday when he accused the media of twisting his words.
But a battling 1-0 success over Liverpool on Wednesday night, along with other results going in the London club's favour, has suddenly revitalised their title credentials and improved their manager's mood in the process. With 12 games remaining the gap between Arsenal and Chelsea has been cut to six points. Others may have lost their faith, but Wenger claimed his never wavered and the flak that came his way in the wake of the two losses was simply part of life as a manager.
"I'm there to get that," he said of the recent criticism. "It's my 300th victory in the Premier League and we have not done too bad. I don't see any mathematical reason why we shouldn't believe. It can change quickly. We had a big shock in our last two games and the most important thing was to recover and come back with a win. I said after the Chelsea game we will fight until the last second of the season. We did that and that's what we will continue to do."
Arsenal do not have to play any of the top four again and - apart from an away trip to Tottenham and a home clash with Manchester City - have no other clashes with sides in the top eight. Starting with out-of-form Sunderland at home a week tomorrow the Gunners begin a run of games that they would expect to pick up maximum points from, with relegation threatened Burnley, West Ham and Wolves also due to visit the Emirates Stadium.
Even the £20,000 (Dh114,000) fine meted out to the Gunners by the English Football Association yesterday for failing to control their players following a confrontation between Samir Nasri and Hull's Richard Garcia, which led to players from both sides being involved during their league clash in December, will not have dampened Wenger's spirit. For Liverpool, Wednesday night could actually have been a lot worse. While they were largely disappointing as their nine-game unbeaten run came to an end, their quest to finish fourth and secure the final Champions League spot was relatively unharmed.
Tottenham failed to capitalise as they went down 1-0 at Wolves, while Villa could only manage a point against ten-man Manchester United. In the battle for fourth place, arguably the team who benefited most from the latest round of results is Manchester City, who are level on points with Liverpool with two games in hand. The two sides meet at Eastlands on February 21 and Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, is expecting the Reds to triumph.
"If we play like we did [at Arsenal] then I fancy us to beat them. If we are on our game and playing well then we are a match for anyone," he said. Meanwhile, United's hopes suffered a blow yesterday when it was confirmed Ryan Giggs had broken his right arm in the match at Villa and will be out for four weeks. Avram Grant, the Portsmouth manager, was yesterday charged by the FA with improper conduct for confronting referee Kevin Friend at half-time during the 1-1 draw with Sunderland on Tuesday.