With a backpack slung over his shoulders, Ashley Cole slipped out of the visitors’ dressing room at the Etihad on Monday evening and clambered aboard Chelsea’s team bus.

He looked and sounded fine, checking his walk to flick his head and say ‘all right’ when he recognised a sympathetic face in the corridor.

He wasn’t miserable or mardy, even after watching Chelsea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Manchester City in its entirety from the substitutes’ bench.

But with his worldly footballing possessions crammed in to that rucksack it looked and felt as though he was ready to go. Cole’s work at Chelsea is done.

Even as the game progressed at the Etihad, Jose Mourinho’s team were evolving, taking shape and preparing for a future without him.

Cesar Azpilicueta, the right-footed left back, starts all the big games for Mourinho: Arsenal (twice), Liverpool, Manchester United and the latest, Manchester City.

At 24, Azpilicueta’s career is in front of him and he has seized this chance. He really looks the part.
Cole has had a fine career at Chelsea, winning four FA Cups, the Champions League, the Europa League and the Barclays Premier League title under Carlo Ancelotti in 2010.

A first-class defender is now second choice for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. At some point it must come to a natural conclusion.

If he leaves Chelsea this summer, when the contract he signed last January expires, at least he can make a dignified exit.