Pain of axe keeps Hart on his toes for title run-in
Man City 5 Fulham 0
Joe Hart has spoken of the hurt he still feels at being dropped by Manchester City this season and admits he has yet to come to terms with being overlooked for "some wonderful opportunities".
England goalkeeper Hart has reclaimed his position as Manuel Pellegrini's first choice in the Premier League since spending almost two months out of the team earlier in the campaign after a series of errors.
And the 26-year-old has rediscovered his best form ahead of tomorrow's derby against Manchester United at Old Trafford, with Saturday's 5-0 victory against Fulham extending his run without conceding a league goal to 418 minutes.
But with Pellegrini naming understudy Costel Pantilimon in goal for the League Cup final victory against Sunderland earlier this month, and also favouring the 6ft 8in Romanian for the FA Cup defeat by Wigan Athletic, Hart is learning to adjust to a new reality at City and he admits that the scars of his demotion are still raw.
"I don't want it to seem as though everything is fine or that it was part of my life that I will forget because I'm still living it and I am trying to live in the moment more recently," Hart said.
"The past is the past and we don't know what lies ahead, so it's better to live day by day. We are going to get some wonderful opportunities at this club – some I will be playing in, some I won't – and I'm just trying to look at things the best I can."
Speaking to City's official match programme, Hart admitted he could not say that the experience of being dropped had changed him or made him stronger.
"It's tough to say because that's probably one of the main reasons I've not really spoken about it," he said. "I don't feel it's a case of that side of things being really solved.
"I wanted to play, but I wasn't playing so I had to work hard and wait for my chance again.
"I try to keep things as neutral as possible. There was definitely a refocus while I was out of the starting line-up and I quite enjoyed it as I tried to get back on track.
"I think the City fans treat me great whether I'm playing or not playing and we've been together a long time now – and I will never forget that."
There are many things that emphasise the gulf between City and United before tomorrow's derby at Old Trafford, but as Yaya Toure emerged from the Etihad Stadium clutching the match ball following this 5-0 victory over Fulham, it was an image that symbolised perhaps the greatest advantage in City's favour.
Having scored a hat-trick to set Manuel Pellegrini's team on course for three points against Felix Magath's doomed outfit, Toure took his tally for the season to 20 goals in all competitions.
For a central midfielder in any league in the world, that is an impressive return, particularly with Toure largely operating from a deep-lying role in front of City's back four this season.
Yet when the Ivorian's goal output is compared to his rivals across town, it highlights a chasm – one which tells you everything about City's position as title chasers and United's struggle to climb from seventh to sixth.
The seven players to have performed in central midfield for United this season have mustered just five goals between them – three for Phil Jones and one apiece for Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley – so Toure's ability to score four times as many goals as David Moyes' misfiring septet should offer City confidence as they prepare for a week in which they visit Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium for two games that could define their title challenge.
When the voting forms for Footballer of the Year are distributed, only those who elevate their teams with individual brilliance can be considered, so on that basis, it appears as though Toure is in a three-way battle with Luis Suarez and Eden Hazard for this season's award.
Toure's City team-mate Samir Nasri claimed earlier this month that "if Toure wasn't African, people would say he is the best midfielder in the world". Whether he is right or wrong, Toure's importance to City does not go unnoticed within the walls of the Etihad.
"He is a very important player and scoring 20 goals from midfield is not easy," Pellegrini said.
"There are not many (like Toure). I think that with those kind of midfielders, who are so good technically, we can do damage to any team."
"We know how important Yaya is for the team," added City defender Pablo Zabaleta. "He is a world-class player. He does everything well. He has got 20 goals this season and this is fantastic for a midfield player. Hopefully he can score a few more hat-tricks between now and the end of the season."
Toure's first two goals against Fulham both came from the penalty spot, with Venezuelan defender Fernando Amorebieta conceding both and getting sent off by referee Jon Moss as a result. Toure's hat-trick goal was a stunning piece of skill, with the former Barcelona midfielder majestically striking a first-time shot beyond goalkeeper David Stockdale from 25 yards.
From that point on, City put their foot firmly on the pedal and extended their lead – and perhaps crucially, their goal difference – with further goals from Fernandinho and Martin Demichelis.
With City chasing the title, the prospect of them securing a third successive derby victory at Old Trafford appears high, particularly after their 4-1 destruction of United at the Etihad earlier this season.
But Zabaleta admits that City must be wary of United and not allow their neighbours to halt their march to the title.
"I think it doesn't matter the situation of United," Zabaleta said. "We know how important it is to win the game for the players, the fans, the club. That is why we need to go there and try to win.
"We know Chelsea at the moment are on the top and even if we have got three games in hand, we need to win at United and see what happens in the next game. But everything depends on us. We just need to keep working hard and winning games. We have won at Old Trafford recently and hopefully we can do it again."
For Fulham, there are different objectives, with Magath's team now four points adrift of safety and with an alarming minus-40 goal difference.
Their survival prospects appear bleak, but the German coach insists they retain hope. "Our home games can save us," Magath said. "We have to win them." (© Daily Telegraph, London)