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Manuel Pellegrini holds cards tight on Joe Hart’s status as Manchester City’s #1

Oct 31, 2013, 8:04 AM EDT

Manchester City's Hart sits on the bench ahead of their English League Cup fourth round soccer match against Newcastle United at St James' Park in Newcastle Reuters

Following a sound if not rudimentary performance by Costel Pantilimon in Manchester City’s 2-0 win over Newcastle in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday, the uncertainty surrounding Joe Hart‘s status as the club’s #1 goalkeeper continues.

Pantilimon, the 6’8″ Romanian giant, was up to the task when he needed to be, thwarting Shola Ameobi‘s first half effort wide and leaving his line to deny Papiss Cisse an injury time effort to keep the score locked at 0-0.

The Cisse block was key to taking the Magpies into extra time where goals by Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko pushed City on to the quarter-finals where they will face Leicester City at King Power Stadium during the week of December 16th.

Deputizing for the much maligned Joe Hart, Pantilimon is a player who many feel manager Manuel Pellegrini may soon make his top man. “Pantilimon has always had my trust and that of the team. He is a good player, that’s why he is here. He may not have played too much because Joe Hart plays last year and this year but I trust him to play.”

Trust. Few words are more important when it comes to goalkeepers. And following his most recent blunder last Sunday against Chelsea, no one knows this better than Hart.

Does he still have the trust of City fans? Of Pellegrini? Of England?

The question is one that sharply divides opinion and the first in line to make his voice heard on the subject will be Pellegrini. Whereas playing Pantilimon in the Capital One Cup was mere rotation – he was getting that call regardless of Hart’s form – which keeper plays against Norwich City this weekend will be determinative of where, exactly, Pellegrini comes down on the controversy.

For now, the Chilean gaffer is remaining tight lipped. “This was a very important match for [Pantilimon]. But I will start to think about the game against Norwich on Thursday. Today I was just thinking about winning this match.

“I think that we will talk tomorrow (about the team selection). One goalkeeper can play but the other will have our full support. We will think about it.”

When pressed for further details about Hart’s standing, Pellegrini was blunt: “I have just told you I will think about that [Thursday].”

So, just how big is the decision before Pellegrini?

Potentially huge. Hart has been City’s #1 since 2007 and was a major factor in guiding the club to its first Premier League championship in 2012. Over the past year Hart’s form has waned, which many feel is due to the fact that he’s never truly been challenged for his spot at City.

It goes without saying that losing his spot would be a blow to his confidence and could have ramifications well beyond City as he is also England’s top netminder heading into the 2014 World Cup, which is just eight months away.

But such is life in professional football and, well, in life. The lessons are simple – step up your game or get passed by. Get passed by and either cower and fold or show the guts it takes to reclaim what was once yours.

If Hart does lose his spot it’s difficult to imagine him failing to come back stronger. Those close to the player describe him as the glue that holds City together, a light-hearted jokester who is competitive and dedicated to his craft. So perhaps a poke in the ribs is exactly what he needs.

We’ll see this weekend.

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