Well now we know – it’s no go Joe as Manchester City’s number one keeper loses top billing and makes way for his previously perennial understudy Costel Pantilimon.
Still to be officially confirmed, Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to go with ‘Pants’ for today’s Premier League match with Norwich, will undoubtedly divide opinion within the ranks of City supporters.
Hart who hasn’t missed a PL start for the last 123 games has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks and has been widely blamed – sometimes unjustly – for errors that have cost City goals and consequently points.
Yes, he’s been culpable to some degree – what goalkeeper has not made mistakes in their careers – but there has been an overzealous media ‘feeding frenzy’ in trying to usurp Hart and consequently destabilise City.
Whatever the rationale, Pellegrini it appears has made a decision for what the Chilean boss obviously sees as the greater good of the team – for the time being. Pantilimon played well at Newcastle in the 2-0 Capital One Cup win on Wednesday, making two particularly good saves from Ameobi and Cisse.
Who’s to say his patience and professionalism shouldn’t merit his big chance in the PL? Pants has been with City since 2011 and hasn’t had so much as a sniff of the English top flight, such has been Hart’s dominance and durability.
Since getting the nod over his last serious challenger, Shay Given, Joe has been omnipresent in all of City’s league games for the last three seasons and the nine games of this campaign. But now Pants get his chance after 13 domestic cup appearances.
As much as the bedrock of City’s support wishes the 26-year old 6ft 7 inch Romanian international well, as they would anybody entrusted with keeping goal for their team, there are elements of anxiety and regret surrounding the dislodged England keeper.
Pragmatically, the fans want the best man for the job between the posts, the individual who avoids visits to football’s launderette by keeping clean sheets. No keeper has been better at doing so than Joe Hart, hence his Golden Glove Awards in recent seasons.
Hopefully his omission will galvanise Hart into knuckling down, working on enhancing his natural talents and regaining that certain ‘edge’ back in his play. Any shortcomings are more related to concentration levels and judgment calls rather the actual physical play elements.
Maybe it’s naivety, but there’s always been a school of thought that Joe would be City and England’s keeper for the next 8-10 years. Let’s hope this turns out to be so. In the meantime Costel will want to impress and what idiot of a City fan would wish him ill? It’s a team effort, win lose or draw and there can be little or no room for sentiment in such a demanding and unforgiving arena.
What is clear is that Hart needs genuine competition for the top slot. If Costel is the man to do that it can only benefit City, as they seek to be have the meanest PL defence for a fourth year running. Ironically, Norwich’s John Ruddy – a potential replacement at England level – will be on the Etihad pitch while Joe is sidelined. In a World Cup year, Joe knows he needs first team football. God forbid it should hasten his departure from City.
Unlike Joe, Vincent Kompany, Javi Garcia and Stevan Jovetic won’t even make the bench due to a sudden flurry of new injuries or, in the skipper’s case, a thigh strain set to see him miss another three games.
Having removed Hart, Pellegrini will be careful to restore other vital organs back to the team including Yaya, Fernandinho, Silva (from the start) Aguero and presumably Nastasic. Demichelis, who would be making his home debut, could once again get the nod over the luckless Joleon Lescott.
Nasri will most likely return, but James Milner will consider himself unlucky if he doesn’t merit a place after an industrious contribution and a wonderful assist at St James’ Park.
The Beast of Sevilla – cult hero Alvaro Negredo, should be partnering Sergio upfront as Pellegrini switches to a more attack-minded line up, after seeking to suffocate Chelsea’s midfield creativity last weekend.
Norwich are normally ‘lambs to the slaughter’ away at City. They had suffered seven consecutive winless games against the sky blues – before the last game of the season in May, when the Canaries were chirping after an unexpected 3-2 win.
It was a surreal occasion – City had inexplicably lost to Wigan in the Cup Final seven days beforehand, Carlos Tevez knew he was waving goodbye (the supporters were none too sure) Vincent Kompany was missing for unexplained disciplinary reasons – the whole afternoon was a bloody shambles.
Encouraged by 3 away wins out of 4 back-to-back road trips, City will want to redress the balance and get back to putting stuffed Canary on the menu.
The last four matches between City and Norwich have produced a staggering 25 goals – an impressive rate of 6.25 per match – most, of course fling into the Canaries net.
Despite the men from Norfolk having the lowest scoring attack in the (six in nine matches) City will be wary of taking Norwich too lightly in their quest for three crucial points if they are to maintain contact with the PL leaders, whether they be Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool.
Chris Hughton’s goal-shy attack is in stark contrast to City’s PL goal getters who have hit 21 so far. It’ll be a bigger shock than away defeats at Cardiff and Villa, if City somehow contrive to lose to Norwich at home. Indeed, if Pellegrini’s men surrendered all three points, it’d be City’s first back-to-back PL defeats in more than three years – unthinkable!
The odds are stacked heavily in City’s favour and, having scored in each of their last 54 PL games at the Etihad, they should be ‘Hawaii’ 5 & 0 by Saturday tea-time, adding to their four home wins this season.
Anything less will totally undermine City’s hard work away from Fortress Etihad throughout October.
Pellegrini will ensure qualification to the Champions League knockout stages if he can engineer a win over CSKA on Tuesday night. This would leave City clear to focus on their PL campaign between now and February, notwithstanding progress in the domestic cups.
It should start with the roasting of some Norfolk birds
By David Walker www.readbutneverred.com
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