WEMBLEY, LONDON—No player was out earlier to warm up for Tuesday evening’s friendly between England and Germany than Joe Hart.
Having already lost his starting place for his club—for now, at least—and under threat at the international level, Hart was out a full hour before the 8 p.m. kick-off, practising his distribution and catching along with the other goalkeepers in the squad, John Ruddy and Fraser Forster.
Having watched Forster play the 90 minutes against Chile on Friday, the Celtic player acquitted himself well on his international debut without really doing anything to suggest to Roy Hodgson that he is an imminent heir to the No. 1 jersey, what was going through Hart’s mind as he took goal kicks on the Wembley turf?
Did he want a busy night, where he could show off his reflexes and demonstrate some improved decision-making? Or a quiet one, minimising the chance of another one of the errors that has seen him reach this mini-crossroads in his career?
In the event, the Manchester City man’s evening fell somewhere between the two camps. The first 30 minutes saw him called into action a handful of times, each of which was simply to collect a back-pass from one of his defenders.
Yet each successful negotiation of such an incident—no matter how trivial it was, by the standards of an international footballer—was greeted by resounding applause from around the near-full ground; incongruous given the level of expertise required, but perhaps a clear indication of whether the average fan wants Hart to come through his struggles and remain his country’s No. 1.
Then, with five minutes remaining, Hart got his chance—making a superb clawing save from Per Mertesacker’s header to keep the score level. It felt like an important moment for Hart...except moments later he was picking the ball out of the net, as Mertesacker beat him with a better effort from another aerial delivery.
There was not a lot Hart could do about the Arsenal man’s effort (if a culprit has to be identified, then Chris Smalling was the defender beaten to the ball in the air), but nevertheless the clean sheet that would have been Hart’s clearest message to the critics was no longer a possibility.
Returning for the second half, Hart was soon called into action again, this time making a smart stop from Marco Reus, who had crept free behind Kyle Walker. The forward struck his attempt rather straight at Hart, but the 26-year-old nevertheless did well to stay on his feet and let his opponent make the first move.
Nearly 15 minutes later, Hart’s decision-making was not so clever, as he bundled into the back of Smalling as the defender cleared a long ball—a choice to rush from his line not dissimilar in its error from his high-profile last minute mistake for City against Chelsea.
This time Smalling got the ball away, although his questioning look back at his goalkeeper after the next ball went out of play said all that was needed about what he thought of the incident.
Minutes later Hart again found himself stranded, as substitute Sidney Sam was played through and tried to lob the onrushing ‘keeper. Hart, who made himself as big as possible, may have felt he put the attacker off with his presence, although a defter touch may have left him looking slightly foolish.
When Wayne Rooney was removed with 20 minutes remaining, it was Hart that took the captaincy—a reminder of exactly how senior he is in this England side, despite his years.
The remainder of the game passed without much incident for Hart, with his defenders stepping in to block any further raids towards his goal.
The final whistle came; for England, it signified another defeat, but for Hart it announced an examination passed.
"He played very well," Hodgson opined afterwards. "He was not snowed under with work, but when they got the ball they did a better job than us (in attacking areas)...and Joe had to make some saves."
There were other players auditioning for their World Cup places on Tuesday, to varying degrees of success.
Southampton’s Adam Lallana was generally agreed to have impressed on debut against Chile, and earned a second shot at pressing his World Cup claims ahead of club teammate Jay Rodriguez (who did not play at all—surely the death knell for his imminent aspirations).
Stationed in a somewhat unfamiliar left-wing role (although he occasionally interchanged with Rooney), Lallana disappeared from the match for long spells, but when he did receive the ball, he showed glimpses of great touch and guile to go with an evident understanding of the game around him.
Two egregious fouls on the fast-footed Lars Bender in either half suggested the speed of the game overwhelmed him somewhat defensively, however, something that may concern Hodgson. Nevertheless, the midfielder at least kept himself in the conversation as Brazil looms—although another encouraging cameo from Ross Barkley, a late substitute, may be where his competition comes from.
"When we do take positives from these games, in terms of individuals, then certainly Adam Lallana will be high on that list," Hodgson noted.
Tom Cleverley was another looking to press his claim, before he was withdrawn on the hour for Jack Wilshere. The presence of captain Steven Gerrard in central midfield, along with the likes of Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Wilshere (a substitute in this game) to call upon, makes one wonder where the room is for Cleverley on the plane next summer, and the Manchester United man did little to convince otherwise.
Only injury to Wilshere—once again, the Arsenal man finished the game hobbling on his ankle—may aid him.
Come next June, when the provisional squad is cut down from 30 to 23, he may be one of the more likely to be left on the tarmac.
Otherwise there were only moderate positives. Andros Townsend again threatened with his pace to underline where his value to England lies, while Kieran Gibbs, a distant third in the left-back pecking order behind Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines, gained 40 minutes of valuable experience in case an injury befalls one (or, heaven forbid, both) of the other two.
In the end, however, it was Hart who had the most to lose on the night. He avoided doing that, ensuring he will deservedly remain England’s No. 1 for a little while yet.
England’s next friendly is against Denmark in March. If Hart is still on the sidelines for his club at that point, Hodgson may well have to take the decision out of his goalkeeper’s hands and turn to Forster or Ruddy.
For now though the onus remains on him, and on Tuesday, Hart just about ensured that he deserves to remain England’s No. 1.