By Liam Twomey
After a month which has subjected him to humiliation, ridicule and public demotion, there is as yet no glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel in which Joe Hart finds himself.
Having been relegated to the dreaded status of No.2 goalkeeper by new Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini, the 26-year-old is facing the biggest challenge of his career at not exactly the opportune moment; can he start for England in Brazil if he cannot usurp Costel Pantilimon in Manchester?
|HART TO HART
|JOE HART'S SEASON SO FAR
|PREMIER LEAGUE APPEARANCES
GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME
SAVES PER GOAL CONCEDED
PASSES PER GAME
Given his situation at Santiago Bernabeu in a World Cup year, Iker Casillas is also potentially on the radar. Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano are both avowed admirers of the World Cup winner and enquired as to his availability on their arrival at the Etihad Stadium in the autumn of 2012, only to be curtly referred to the Real Madrid legend’s £114 million release clause.
Francesco Bardi, the Inter starlet currently on loan at Livorno, is another option and has been the subject of weekly scouting trips. With Samir Handanovic likely to remain the undisputed No.1 at San Siro for the foreseeable future, the Nerazzurri are understood to be willing to listen to offers for the 21-year-old, but City scouts are yet to be convinced he would improve on what they have.
Asmir Begovic, the man it is widely believed was lined up to replace Hart by Roberto Mancini in the summer, is still being monitored, while Estudiantes youngster Geronimo Rulli has attracted the attention of Barcelona as well as City. None, though, are likely to arrive if Pantilimon decides to extend his contract at the club, which expires this summer.
For the moment, the giant Romanian is the man tasked with beating Hart out of his slump. His burning desire for regular first-team football has so far fuelled his refusal to negotiate a new deal. Supplanting the Englishman in the City goal may soften his stance, however, and if Pellegrini can tie his man down he may well remain content with the options at his disposal.
Hart can, at least, take solace in City’s unwavering insistence that he is not for sale. Rather than simply casting him out, Pellegrini believes the 26-year-old needs to be pushed to work more to improve his game – particularly his distribution, which is regarded as too slow and direct for the style of play the Chilean is trying to implement.
Whether through Pantilimon or another goalkeeper drafted in to take his place, it is clear Hart should expect fierce competition to make Pellegrini’s starting XI for the foreseeable future. Yet perhaps – as many at City suspect and hope – it is exactly what he requires.
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