By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Ashley Cole is regarded as one of the best left backs in the world and will start his 100th match for England against Brazil on Wednesday but reputation will count for nothing in the meritocratic world of coach Roy Hodgson.
The Chelsea player, one of the first names on the teamsheet for a succession of England coaches, has a fierce rival for the left back spot in the shape of Everton's Leighton Baines and Hodgson admits it gives him a welcome headache.
"Ashley Cole will start and win his 100th cap," Hodgson told reporters on the eve of a mouth-watering friendly against the five-times world champions.
"After that I will have to see what I do with Leighton who has done well in Ashley's absence. They are both exceptional players but Ashley will start.
"I'm just pleased Ashley is still the one we all know and admire and Leighton is breathing down his neck and making sure his performances are of the highest level."
Cole, 32, made his England debut in 2001 and according to captain Steven Gerrard, who will be presented with the 100th cap he earned against Poland before kickoff, is the most "consistent" player he has played alongside.
Hodgson sees no reason why Gerrard should let Cole lead out the side to mark his milestone but would be upset if England fans fail to give the former Arsenal player a generous ovation.
"I think he's just very happy to be a key player in the team so I'm pretty certain he won't be trying to rip the armband off Steven. If he does I might have to step in," said Hodgson.
Cole, whose love life, various driving offences and carelessness with an air rifle when he accidentally shot a youth player at Chelsea's training ground, have made him a target of the boo-boys at English grounds.
"I see no reason why the fans won't give him the credit and reception he deserves," he said.
"He has never started as substitute in 99 games and if you are an England fan and don't respect him and love him for doing that then that's your problem not his."
Cole will become the seventh England player to win 100 caps for his country, joining Bobby Charlton, David Beckham, Billy Wright, Bobby Moore, Peter Shilton and Gerrard.
While England are by no means certain to qualify for next year's World Cup finals in Brazil, should they negotiate their group and head to south America, Cole will have to keep producing five-star performances to keep Baines at bay.
"Ashley has come under greater scrutiny and the competition for his place is probably greater than its been in the past," said Hodgson who will be missing injured strikers Jermain Defoe Daniel Sturridge for Wednesday's clash.
"Leighton Baines has matured as an international. It's great to have that kind of headache but it won't be an easy choice when they are both fit and vying to play in the big games.
"But I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."
"That's the way it must be if we are ever going to perform at the highest level, we need that level of competition right throughout the team like it is in some of the other countries."
Hodgson, who could play Arsenal's Theo Walcott in a central striking role with Wayne Rooney tucked just behind him, said Wednesday's match was no ordinary friendly.
"Experimenting is not a word I really want to use," he said. "We are taking the game too seriously to even entertain the use of the word experimenting."
However enticing the prospect of beating Brazil for the first time since 1990 is, Hodgson acknowledged that the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and group leaders Montenegro in March are more important.
"We won't get to Brazil 2014 by winning friendly matches even if it's against one of the top nations in the world but it would be a great way to start 2013," he said. (Editing by Ed Osmond)