World Cup: Hart ready for Pirlo in jungle warfare

Joe Hart doesn't regret his penalty shoot-out antics against Italy at Euro 2012. Picture: Getty
Joe Hart doesn't regret his penalty shoot-out antics against Italy at Euro 2012. Picture: Getty
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It had shades of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Harrison’s Ford’s character is confronted by a sword-wielding assailant, whose swashbuckling is quickly brought to an end when Indiana Jones shoots him dead with a pistol.

When Joe Hart waited in preparation for Andrea Pirlo to take his penalty during the shoot-out to decide the quarter-final tie between England and Italy during Euro 2012, the goalkeeper felt the need to resort to theatrics, in the manner of Bruce Grobbelaar in the 1984 European Cup final between Liverpool and AS Roma.

Out went the tongue, and then came the waving arms and squats and slightly unhinged-looking grin. Unlike in Grobbelaar’s case, Hart’s effort to put off his opponent did not end well.

As related in his excellent recent autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, Pirlo decided to dink the ball past Hart after he saw the goalkeeper “doing all sorts” on the goalline. For Hart, there was humiliation. However, the goalkeeper remains adamant that such antics were, he felt, the best way to stop Pirlo’s penalty. He might, he says, even do it all again tomorrow in Manaus, when the teams meet in their opening Group D World Cup clash.

However the goalkeeper also revealed yesterday that he has been watching plenty of footage of Pirlo’s latest efforts, if indeed it is he who steps up to take a penalty in the event of one being awarded tomorrow. Of course, the task could fall to Mario Balotelli, Hart’s former Manchester City team-mate. He credits Balotelli with being “very good” at penalties but hasn’t kept in touch with him since he left for AC Milan. He, has, though watched him play, and, specifically, studied his penalties.

“We cover everybody. There’s not a stone unturned,” said Hart, who is relishing the prospect of a World Cup where he is the undisputed No 1, after being taken as understudy to Robert Green and David James in South Africa four years ago. “We’re not just a group of 23 players. We’ve got amazing staff, amazing video analysis. Anything you want is at your fingertips and people are willing to give it to you. You can trace someone’s movements for the last two years, on and off the field, if you really want to.”

Such surveillance might not be enough to combat someone as wily as Pirlo, whose performances in recent years means he is now numbered as among the world’s best midfielders. His chipped penalty against England two years ago simply enhanced an already strong reputation. Even English players have since admitted how much they admired his mettle for choosing to do what he did, when he did. Hart is not obsessing over the memory of what happened. “I’ll never regret how it was,” said Hart yesterday, as he prepared to face up to Pirlo again, in the jungle city of Manaus rather than Kiev. “That was how I saw the best way to win us the shoot-out. It wasn’t! But at the time it felt like it was.

“I don’t think it made any difference or that it was personal. He scored a penalty. I don’t think there was any personal vengeance from him. There certainly wasn’t any thought of that from me. He did what he thought he needed to do for his country, I did what I thought was best for mine.”

Hart knows that a World Cup setting is where reputations are made and also lost. He watched from the bench as Green endured a nightmare start to the last World Cup, allowing a weak shot from Clint Dempsey to slip through his hands against the United States. The mistake meant England were pegged back to 1-1, which is how the game finished. James took Green’s place thereafter.

Now at Queens Park Rangers, Green has however recovered from the high-profile error.

“Rob showed fantastic mental strength,” Hart said. “He’s someone I admire in terms of that. He was absolutely brilliant. He didn’t have a bad game that game [against the United States]. He had a bad moment, which we all have. If you analyse the 25 players who played that day, every single one of them will have had a bad moment.”

Some attributed Green’s mistake to the controversial Jabulani ball that was introduced for the South Africa World Cup. A new one going by the name ‘Brazuca’ has been designed for Brazil. Although he got sent the ball a while ago, Hart elected to not start practising with it until after the league season had finished. Over the last three weeks, however, England goalkeeper coach Dave Watson has been, in Hart’s description, “smashing” balls at all three England goalkeepers, including Celtic’s Fraser Forster, in a bid to ensure they are used to its feel. According to Hart, these World Cup balls might swerve a lot, but that is because players as skilful as Pirlo are hitting them.

“A lot is made of the ball but it’s the same for everyone,” said Hart. “When it’s hit hard they do move but that’s down to the technical ability of the players. Everyone has adapted and moved with the times and realised you can get a bit more swerve on the ball and things like that. That’s what you’ve got to expect. It’s not necessarily down to it being an erratic ball. It’s down to the quality of the people striking it.

“I got hold of one,” he added, with reference to the Brazuca. “We didn’t use it because we were busy with the Premier League but I physically had one to look at. There’s a different texture to it compared to the Premier League ball, very similar to the Champions League ball, apart from a different design. In terms of the little dimples and how you strike it, it is quite similar to the Champions League ball.”