Joe Hart (36 appearances): 9/10
Joe Hart will always be that shot-stopper who polarises opinion.
Since bursting onto the Premier League scene by winning the Barclays Golden Glove in his first proper season at Manchester City, the 28-year-old shot-stopper has become an integral part of the Etihad outfit. While punters will have you know that Hart's best season was in 2011-12 when he was at the forefront of the club's title-winning campaign, it's arguable that his importance in leading the club has not yet been fully realized, that is, until now.
For a few seasons now, the England international has often been criticized for his unnecessary errors and lapses in concentration, with the condemnations so harsh that they’ve often threatened to have an effect similar to Robert Green’s infamous fall from grace.
Most notably, though, Hart has faced the most criticism in matches which Manchester City have been the most dominant, the matches where there seems to be little to do defensively, and so, when counter-attacks do occur, the custodian seems far from capable to deal with the danger.
His exile from the squad in favor of understudy Costel Pantilimon last season after poor performances against Chelsea and Bayern Munich in the early stages saw critics pounce as though it was a medieval witch-hunt. Similarly, in the past season, a few less than impressive performances saw him embroiled in yet another selection controversy where Pellegrini favoured Willy Caballero.
At the time, Hart denounced Pellegrini’s actions, saying: "It’s hard for me to see it that way. I’m sure that when I retire from football in many years to come I’ll see them but right now I’m not going to see positives."
Fact is, shot-stopping is no mean feat, and contrary to popular belief, isn’t just simply about amazing reflexes. Critically, the position is defined, mainly, by confidence and so it seems fluctuation in form is normal; it’s a position which is heavily scrutinized, yet rarely praised.
For Hart, fast-forward a few months and a run into the Champions League quarter-finals, and the 28-year-old’s situation has changed, for the better. And his performances during the clutch moments of continental, and domestic, competitions have brought the best out of him.
Most notably is his performance against Barcelona, at the Camp Nou, where he denied Messi and co. on numerous occasions. His saves in the second half helped Manchester City avoid humiliation. When Neymar played Messi in through on goal for a one-on-one, Hart didn’t flinch and as the Argentine attempted to round him, he stood his ground and stopped Messi in his tracks.
Moments later, he expertly blocked a Neymar shot from close range, denied Suarez at the near post and somehow scrambled his way to make a block against Messi when he virtually had an open goal in front of him.
It was a performance which, arguably, sets him apart as one of the world’s best and led to a chorus of praise, led by Messi himself, who called him a ‘phenomenon’, and pundit Gary Lineker.
Let’s also not forget his incredible reflex save against Swanseas’s Federico Fernandez to deny the Argentinian defender a headed goal.
Amidst his 36 Premier League appearances this season, Hart made 14 clean-sheets, the most in the league which boasts keepers the likes of Courtois, Mignolet, Hugo Lloris, and David De Gea, the other Manchester goalkeeper who’s startling performances has seen Hart’s go unnoticed.
In addition, the custodian averages at about 2.11 saves a game, 0.94 goals conceded and an average claim success of 95%.
Perhaps the most outstanding aspects of Hart’s play this season is his ability to be resilient in a season which, for City’s standards, has been underwhelming, his ability to lead the dressing room as well as his positioning and poise on the pitch to narrow the angles and to pull off saves when needed as the final line of defence. His extraordinary feats are simply a bonus.
Where Manuel Neuer was steamrolled and failed to deliver, Hart stood tall and showed why he deserves to be recognized as among the world’s elite. And, chances are, you’ll see more of it next season.