Sunday 24 September 2017

Mistakes not denting 'butterfly catcher' Hart's Italian appeal

On-loan City keeper has cost Torino points but his cult status is untarnished

Torino FC's Joe Hart. Photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images
Torino FC's Joe Hart. Photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

James Horncastle

When a goalkeeper comes for a cross and doesn't claim the ball, the Italians like to think he looks like a butterfly catcher. To Gigi Garanzini, La Stampa's veteran columnist, that's exactly what Joe Hart resembled when Crotone whipped a short corner in toward the far post at the Stadio Grande Torino a fortnight ago. Hart missed the ball and, losing his balance, fell to the ground, allowing Simmy Nwankwo to prod the ball into an empty net from Andrea Nalini's knock down, levelling the score.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Torino boss Sinisa Mihajlovic said afterwards. "It's just when goalkeepers make them you always notice them more." The irascible Serb lamented how "we continue to concede absurd goals" but rather than lay the blame for dropping two points squarely on Hart's shoulders, he instead chose to point the finger at Torino's uncharacteristically profligate attack. "What with our own mistakes in front of goal and the saves of their `keeper, we missed 10 or 12 chances."

Assessment

Not everybody shared in Mihajlovic's balanced assessment though. Garanzini, for instance, didn't pull any punches, writing that: "Whoever takes [Hart's] place between the posts [next season], will be welcome, even if it were his divisive predecessor, [Daniele] Padelli." For the uninitiated, here's a primer in Padelli. Frequently the stand-in's back-up when Antonio Conte managed Italy, he lost his place in the Torino squad last summer after an attempt to play out from the back against Empoli ended with him passing the ball into his own net.

It seemed a touch over the top and besides the stopper's most recent mistake didn't appear to shake Mihajlovic's confidence in Hart. On the contrary he reiterated his wish that Manchester City will agree to loan the England international back to Torino for another year next season.

It's a line the club has seldom strayed from since Hart joined, and Torino owner Urbano Cairo is no exception. But for all the affection he has for Hart, he did less of a good job at hiding his frustration than Mihajlovic at the weekend. "I love Joe," he said, "He's a great guy. But we've conceded that type of goal three times already."

Cairo isn't lying either. It happened against Atalanta in January and against Inter in March, and on each occasion, just like against Crotone, the goals - practically carbon copies of each other - were the difference between a Torino win and a Torino draw.

Cairo has suggested that as speculation about Hart's future has intensified so have the mistakes. "Leave him in peace," he pleaded. But it was too late. The horse has bolted and by highlighting Hart's other errors, Torino's goalkeeper became the story rather than their striker Andrea Belotti, whose goal against Cretone meant he became only the fifth Italian since 1962 to score 25 goals in a season.

It perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise. Belotti scoring goals just isn't news anymore and, although 'Il Gallo' looks set for the most prolific season of all-time by a Torino striker, the Opta stat that really got people talking was the one about Hart making the second most errors leading to goals among goalkeepers in Serie A this season with five.

Musing on what Torino's number one problem is at the moment, La Stampa settled on "the No.1." In fairness to Hart, he does not enjoy the protection one might reasonably expect in Italy and if only four teams in Serie A have an inferior defensive record than Torino, who haven't kept a clean sheet in 15 games, it is not all his fault. Not everyone shares Belotti's spirit of sacrifice.

Wingers like Adem Ljajic are not known for tracking back. And the backline isn't the same without centre-back Brazilian Leandro Castan at its core. As Torino's chances of qualifying for Europe have diminished, attention has turned to helping Belotti finish the season as Capocannoniere.

Mihajlovic has also set the team the goal of out-scoring city rivals Juventus - they currently trail the league leaders by five in that regard - as they're unlikely to beat the Old Lady when they visit there in 10 days' time. An unbalanced team is doubling down on its attack and Hart is exposed.

The flip side to that, of course, is he has more opportunities to shine. But if there's one goalkeeper on loan to a Serie A club from a Premier League counterpart who is doing that at the moment it's Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole is enjoying the best season of his career at Roma.

Torino don't have any regrets, though. They're happy to take credit for pulling off an unlikely transfer coup, which began when Emiliano Viviano decided to stay at Samp rather than opt for a reunion with Mihajlovic. It was Viviano's agent Claudio Vigorelli who recommended they get in touch with Hart's people.

Hart remains a fan favourite. Torino broke their transfer record to sign Ljajic from Roma for €8.5m in the summer but it was the novelty of an English goalkeeper choosing to play in Italy for the first time since 1930 that really captured the imagination and still does.

The crowds that came out to greet him in August were the biggest for a new Torino signing since Martín Vazquez joined from Real Madrid in 1990 and the enthusiasm hasn't waned.

Memorial

A group of Torino supporters were behind Hart's goal at Wembley, calling his name, when England played Scotland in November, and more than 500 gathered at the Kappa store in Turin last month for a chance to meet Hart. A visit to the Grande Torino memorial a fortnight ago and his willingness to speak a little Italian and read up on the club's history have been a big part of why banners like those saying "Kamoooon Joe, stay with us," keep appearing at Torino's home games.

The biggest sign that he won't be around next season however came on February 1 when Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, the Under-20 World Cup winning goalkeeper and brother of Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, arrived from Lechia Gdansk. Dubbed the "Serbian Donnarumma" by Mihajlovic, he isn't eligible to play until next season but Torino brought the move forward after Lechia reacted by freezing him out and he is currently training with club's reserves.

Reports of an agreement with Roma for the excellent Lukasz Skorupski, currently on loan at Empoli, also refuse to go away and wouldn't come as a surprise given the amount of business the two clubs have done together in the last year. For all Torino's posturing about keeping Hart, the economics have always been against them. City's valuation is approximately double their club record transfer fee and his wages are on a par with Gigi Buffon's.

The fans will be sad to see him go. On the pitch, he's had his ups and downs but it's fair to say he's been better than the last Joe to don the club's colours. English striker Joe Baker was a hero in the derby, scoring the winner against Juventus in 1961, but his short time at the club was quite literally a car crash. He was sold to Arsenal after smashing his Alfa Romeo into the statue of Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi at four in the morning. (© Independent News Service)

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