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The footballing rumourverse is buzzing with stories about Ashley Cole, and this time the defender hasn't even shot anyone. Apparently, it's time to start linking Cole, who'll be out of contract at the end of the season, with anyone and everyone who has money. This sort of thing is to be expected from the media, who as a group would happily sell their own families for beautiful, beautiful page views, but ignoring how annoying the stories are, it's probably time to ask ourselves some serious questions about the 31-year-old's future.
Cole had been rather obviously on the decline for almost two full seasons before this year's mini-revival, but the appointment of Roberto di Matteo has turned his fortunes around. Since the Italian took over in March this year, Cole's flank has stopped being a complete defensive liability, and that's allowed the left back to flourish.
No, Cole's not the all-around monster that he was in his Arsenal and early Chelsea days -- he used to be able to shut down an entire wing by himself back then while also filling in the role of a left winger when he opted to go forward -- but he's still a strong player, and he seems to have recovered some of the defensive ability that deserted him during the latter days of Carlo Ancelotti and the Andre Villas-Boas fiasco.
And that leaves Chelsea, somewhat paradoxically, in a bind. Twelve months ago, the answer to the Ashey Cole situation would have been pretty obvious. Letting him leave at the end of his contract, especially with Ryan Bertrand seemingly ready for the big time, would have been no big loss. Certainly, replacing the best left back the Premier League had ever seen would have been problematic, but Cole wasn't the same player as he once was and we'd suffer there with or without him.
Now that Cole's bounced back, however, it's not at all clear that the club wouldn't be taking a major hit with his departure. Bertrand's a fine player, but it'd be hard to argue that he's a strong bet to adequately replace Cole's 2013/14 production at this point.
But at the same time, hitching your wagons to a 31-year-old player who's clearly past his peak for the long run isn't a wise financial decision. Cole is expensive, old and unlikely to get any better. His wages are currently excluded from the club's books for the purposes of Financial Fair Play, which means that Chelsea would be hit with the full force of his contract if they gave him a raise.
Essentially, if Chelsea want to keep Cole around, they're going to have to gamble that he's not going to fall off a cliff within the next few years. Whether or not that'd be a particularly wise gamble is an open question. The Blues can afford to make a mistake here and there with contracts and transfers, but they should be erring on the side of caution for the more senior players (even if 31 really isn't that old).
If I were running the ship, I'd offer Cole and decent two-year deal with the intention of parting ways in summer 2015. It might not turn out to be the best investment that anyone's ever made, and I'm not entirely comfortable with the precedent, but stability in the defence should be a priority, and Cole's rebirth this season's enough to convince me that he can add value to the squad for a little while longer.
If Chelsea don't get an extension sorted out by January, the Cole will be free to talk to other teams, at which point things just become a straight-up bidding war. I don't think the club wants that to happen, so they've only got a handful of weeks to sort this all out. What do you think they'll do? What do you want to happen?