Manchester City advanced to the semi-finals of the League Cup on Tuesday with a 3-1 victory at Leicester, and Joe Hart once again impressed. The English keeper, dropped from the City side following a costly error late on in the October 27 loss to Chelsea, has been outstanding in European and League Cup matches since his demotion. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has been reluctant to criticize the England keeper in the media, preferring to keep his critiques of Hart in-house, and that seems to have revived the confidence of the previously shaken Hart.
While recalling Hart a few weeks ago would have appeared to be cruel to Costel Pantilimon, his replacement has now begun to struggle. In the 6-3 victory against Arsenal at the Etihad, the Romanian keeper avoided Hart-like disasters, but looked unsure of himself and at times flat-footed facing a relentless Gunners onslaught in the second half.
On Arsenal’s first goal, Pantilimon did not react at all — though, in fairness, he may have been distracted by Martin Demichelis’ extraordinarily pathetic attempt to clear Theo Walcott’s shot with his knee-cap. But in the second half, Pantilimon made multiple errors of concern. First, he failed to claim a cross that Olivier Giroud fired over, causing confusion in the Blues defense. Second, he punched into danger a non-threatening free-kick that could have easily been caught. Third, he came off his line late on another Giroud cross. And fourth, he reacted extremely late to Nicklas Bendtner’s goal, which was fortunately flagged for offside.
Pantilimon’s play may be simply reinforcing the reality that City’s attacking-oriented tactics are to mostly to blame for the club that had the best defensive record in the Premier League each of the past three season, and that is now regularly leaking goals. No question exists that Joe Hart was poor this season before being benched. But at times, he has saved City, salvaging a point at Stoke in a match the Blues had no business getting a result in. Hart has also had to deal with a largely makeshift center back pairing, although the Aston Villa and Bayern Munich defeats exposed City’s regular duo of Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasić. In the return leg against Bayern, he was outstanding, saving the Blues from falling well behind in a match the team recovered to improbably win.
Former manager Roberto Mancini was defense-minded and, in many ways, Hart did not have to face the onslaught of opposition chances he has compared to this season. The club ethos at Manchester City does demand good football, which is why Stuart Pearce was so loathed by many fans during his tenure, but Mancini’s football — while tactical and probing — wasn’t entirely negative despite its reputation. Still Pellegrini’s more progressive football is always going to create more chances for both sides in matches, and now that Hart has been exiled and had time to think about his errors, he needs to be given another chance to shine.
Long-term, Joe Hart will be Manchester City’s keeper. Premier League squad rules and the investment the club has made in him dictate the Blues keep an English keeper, if possible. Pantilimon has deputized well but his limitations are now apparent, and his insertion into the side was never meant to be permanent.
For the long-term health of Manchester City and England, the time is now for Pellegrini to reinsert Joe Hart in the Premier League starting XI.
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