MANCHESTER: Joe Hart played potentially his last Manchester City game as Pep Guardiola’s team rubber-stamped their place in the Champions League group phase by beating Steaua Bucharest 1-0 on Wednesday. Leading 5-0 from last week’s away leg, City completed a 6-0 aggregate victory courtesy of Fabian Delph’s second-half header, putting them in Thursday’s group-stage draw in Monaco with room to spare. But the spotlight at a less than full Etihad Stadium fell squarely on goalkeeper Hart, whose name was chanted by the home fans throughout the game after he was frozen out by new manager Guardiola. “That was a really special night for me,” Hart, City’s captain for the night, told BT Sport. “We all know there is a situation going on. This is a special place for me, I’ve made no secret of that. But situations occur in football. We are men and we get on with it.”
With Claudio Bravo poised to complete a 17 million pounds ($22 million, 20 million euros) move from Barcelona, this could have been Hart’s 348th and final City appearance. A veteran of City’s two Premier League title wins, two League Cup successes and 2011 FA Cup triumph, the England goalkeeper, 29, applauded all four corners of the ground before going off at the end. “Joe is still a player of us. I’m so happy with him today,” Guardiola said. “I know he’s a legend for this club. Joe is one of the reasons the club has become (what it is). He helped to make this team one step above, so I’m so happy the people love him.” Hart has been linked with a move to Everton or Sevilla. His fellow outcast Yaya Toure was also handed a first competitive start of the season by Guardiola, who saw Nigerian striker Kelechi Iheanacho hobble off with an apparent calf injury late on.
‘Pigs do fly!’
A picture of Hart had been removed from the stadium’s exterior wall prior to the game as part of a visual facelift, but City’s fans made it clear they were unhappy about his treatment by Guardiola. One group of fans held a banner reading “A GOOD HART THESE DAYS IS HARD TO FIND” and a chant of “Don’t sell Joe Hart!” broke out within seconds of kick-off. Guardiola has justified his decision to sideline Hart by citing concerns about his passing ability and there were ironic cheers every time the City goalkeeper successfully picked out a team-mate.
Asked about his successful footwork after the game, Hart joked: “Well pigs do fly, don’t they!” City controlled the game, but although Iheanacho, Nolito and Delph all hit the target in the first half, none of them came close to troubling Steaua goalkeeper Valentin Cojocaru. After drawing a block from Cojocaru, Delph made the breakthrough in the 56th minute when he converted Jesus Navas’s right-wing cross with a glancing header. But the home fans had other preoccupations and after a chant of “Stand up if you love Joe Hart!” had drawn almost everyone in the ground to their feet, his first save, from Adrian Popa, prompted a huge cheer. There were two further saves, to repel a free-kick from Nicolae Stanciu and a close-range Alexandru Tudorie effort, and both were greeted in the same manner.
A straightforward evening for Guardiola took an unwelcome twist towards the end when Iheanacho pulled up abruptly as he chased a through ball and had to be stretchered off. “We were more organized today,” said Steaua coach Laurentiu Reghecampf. “The difference was the hugely valuable players City have.” — AFP