When Sir Alex Ferguson is compelled to praise an opponent without their name being mentioned in a question, it is one of English football's ultimate compliments. For Joe Hart, it was a "great honour" when the Manchester United manager hailed the Manchester City player as "the best English goalkeeper in the last 20 years" in February. Later this year, Ferguson described him as "the difference" in City beating United to the Premier League title.
Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney are in unison that Hart is the best goalkeeper in the world, and so are several jingoistic pundits. The reality is the 25-year-old has regressed at a worrying rate of knots the past six months.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's audaciously awesome biycle kick goal past England in Stockholm came via Hart needlessly rushing off his line to execute a terrible header. Before that, he had been beaten by a saveable, long-distance Ibrahimovic free-kick.
Hart is none-too-impressed in Stockholm
The benefit Hart enjoys is that in England he is renowned for being exempted from criticism despite mistakes against teams as diverse as Southampton, Poland and Ajax this season. He dropped a clanger at the weekend when he literally threw Steven Caulker's header into his own net, but even the usually forthright Gary Neville did not identify him as at fault. On Match of the Day, Guy Mowbray risibly remarked "Too much power for Joe Hart."
You get the impression some would literally fight to defend him. When it came to analysing Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid winner which went through him, all but one of ITV's pundits agreed "you can't blame Joe Hart for that". Vincent Kompany's cowardice in evading Ronaldo's shot surprised him, but it didn't legislate for allowing the ball to beat him.
The one pundit none-too-impressed with Hart was Roy Keane, who reckons he has become "cocky". Hart has always been confident - an imperative trait for a goalkeeper - but since he ousted Shay Given as City's number one and became a certain starter for England at the same time he has made the dangerous transition. The manner in which he conceded a Blackburn goal in September 2010 to Nikola Kalinić was an accident waiting to happen. Robbed of the ball after going walkabout, he even had the cheek to feign injury in a bid to have the goal disallowed. "I hold my hands up. I am sorry for that," he said.
Hart's candour contributes to the unrivalled positivity he enjoys out of all of the England squad members. He was lauded for the "We can only blame ourselves" mea culpa he expressed after the last-minute defeat to Madrid, which has masked his errors since then. That marvellous performance he gave against Borussia Dortmund, in which he repelled the German champions nine times to earn City a fortunate Champions League draw, also bolstered his immunity.
But Hart becoming something of a liability is nothing new since his relapse actually began in the summer at the European Championship. Culpable for Samir Nasri's equaliser for France in the opening game, he also dithered over whether to command his area for Sweden's two set-piece goals in the second group match. While not obviously at fault, he could have emerged as the dominant figure, although crosses have long been one of the weaker points of his game.
Some nervy handling was swept under the carpet via two clean sheets in the next two matches (and a hefty portion of good fortune thanks to Ukraine's ghost goal) but he failed the acid test in the penalty shootout versus Italy. That Andrea Pirlo 'Panenka penalty', the regista admitted afterwards, was motivated by his determination to take Hart down a peg. Hart had opted for some pathetic facial expressions resembling a New Zealander doing the Haka in order to intimidate the Italians, something which Pirlo was having none of. It was a tactic also unsuccessfully deployed by understudy Jack Butland for Team GB at the Olympics. Cocky, again.
His dip this season has not been helped by Roberto Mancini switching between personnel and formation as City have become as secure as Newsnight's future, either. However they conceded 29 Premier League goals last season with a defence not synonymous with solidity and Hart regularly excelled as the last line of defence then.
Not treated to the scrutiny a foreign Arsenal goalkeeper or Manchester United's David de Gea have because of his nationality, it may actually help Hart if he was scrutinised. His role, unlike the faltering Pepe Reina, is not under threat with either club or country but City are on course to concede more goals this season and he cannot afford to buckle under the pressure any more.
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