Hodgson can take Hart from England's resilience

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Any team with an 'okay' goalkeeper is always looking over its shoulder. England needn't worry, though, because in Joe Hart, they possess a top-class presence between the sticks.

At just 25-years-old, the Manchester City star is already revered as one of the most talented stoppers in all of Europe, and will be key to the country's chances of success in Poland and Ukraine this summer.

For a nation that boasts such a proud history of goalkeepers down the years, from Gordon Banks to Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton to David Seaman, it's ten years since the Three Lions produced a truly dependable custodian, as reliable for his concentration and kicking, as he is for his anticipation and shot-stopping. Hart has it all.

"He will be vital," insisted Roy Hodgson. "His form for Manchester City has been superb. When he has played for England he has done very well. If we are to do well there is no doubt we will need Joe Hart in top form.

"If you look at the top England teams of the past and the teams that have done extremely well, we have often had a goalkeeper that people have suggested is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe or in the case of Gordon Banks, one of the best in the world."

Hart is without doubt the finest keeper the national team have had since Seaman at his peak in Euro '96. Identifying his replacement after the 2002 World Cup - which marked a fourth consecutive major tournament for the former Arsenal ace - was certainly not easy.

David James was handed the gloves by Sven Goran Eriksson at Euro 2004, but by the 2006 World Cup, Paul Robinson was the first choice. The disastrous qualifying campaign for Euro 2008 ended with Scott Carson between the England posts, and Rob Green was handed the No.1 jersey by Fabio Capello at the start of the World Cup in South Africa two years ago.

One of Capello's biggest regrets - and there surely is quite a few - must be that he did not take a gamble on Hart in 2010, and hand him his fourth cap in the opening group game against the USA. After Green's high-profile error, the Italian tactician turned to James, leaving England's most talented stopper watching on helplessly from the bench.

Two years on, and Hart is head and shoulders above every other goalkeeper in this country. It's a view that is shared by Three Lions coach Gary Neville, who was a part of the England defence during the years spent searching for Seaman's successor following his international retirement.

"I'm not being disrespectful to the goalkeepers who I played with. But we have a great goalkeeper now and that may be the difference [this summer]," he said last week. "Look how we went out in the past. Penalties in two quarter-finals, one second phase against Argentina and a semi-final.

"Now, but for a goalkeeper save or the width of a post, we are in semis and finals. The lines are so fine. So if we get to a quarter-final and our great goalkeeper saves two or three, then we are in the semi-final.

"I'm not saying that our goalkeepers haven't done well in penalty shootouts because it is a little bit of a lottery and we have not been very good at them. But Joe Hart is excellent."

England kept a second consecutive clean sheet in the 1-0 friendly victory over Belgium at Wembley on Saturday - a carbon copy of the result against Norway in Oslo the previous weekend - to ensure that the Hodgson era starts as it means to go on at Euro 2012.

With an emphasis placed on resolute defensive performances, if there is one thing that you can guarantee with any team under the stewardship of the former Baggies boss, it's that England will be hard to beat. And, the role of Hart, who continues to instill confidence in the players in front of him, will be instrumental.

Saturday also represented the City stopper's seventh clean sheet in 15 starts for the Three Lions since the last World Cup.

"For long periods he didn't have a lot to do," reflected Hodgson of his goalkeepers display in the final warm-up match. "You notice that with goalkeepers.

"When they don't have a lot to do, they start to practise their kicking. They do the cleverer kicks or the better kicks. When they have a lot to do, they are quite happy to throw it out and get a bit of a breather."

With only 18 senior caps to his name, Hart still has a long way to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Banks, Shilton and Seaman - England's greatest ever goalkeepers. But, time is very much on his side.

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Joe Hart
Manchester City

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