England boss Gareth Southgate has given his backing to goalkeeper Joe Hart and confirmed that the much-scrutinised West Ham stopper will start Friday's World Cup qualifier in Malta.
Hart has endured a difficult start to the campaign with the Hammers, conceding 10 goals in three Premier League games, while an indifferent performance in the Three Lions’ last outing against Scotland increased the pressure upon him.
The 30-year-old was beaten twice by Leigh Griffiths free-kicks during the 2-2 draw in Glasgow, which led to calls for the former Manchester City custodian to be replaced by Stoke’s Jack Butland.
Southgate named four goalkeepers in his squad for the Malta showdown and Monday’s tussle with Slovakia at Wembley, but has installed Hart, who is set to win his 72nd cap, as his No1.
“Joe Hart will play for us. In my time as manager he has been excellent for England and we’ve only conceded two goals in this campaign – the two free-kicks which were outstanding at Hampden Park,” he said.
“He has had a difficult start to the season with his club, that is clear. The club are not in good form but, equally, I have got trust in him from the way he has played for England.
“He knows he has got competition for his place but, at the moment, three games into the season I don’t think anybody else has played to a level to force us to make a change in that position. Joe is in on merit.”
Southgate, however, has refused to confirm who will wear the Three Lions armband in Friday’s clash following the international retirement of designated skipper Wayne Rooney last week.
“I haven’t spoken to the players about it yet; everybody outside of our camp is more concerned about it than I am,” added Southgate. “My priority is to develop more leaders in this group and I don’t want to pin down one captain at this moment in time.
“I want different people to have that experience. I’m not trying to devalue the honour of it at all because I recognise there is great prestige in captaining your country. Equally, it’s not a situation where one player should be affecting the team’s mentality.”
England top Group F, two points clear of second-placed Slovakia, with four qualification matches to play.