Football: Fans hail Hart as Man City reach Champions League group phase

Manchester City's Joe Hart points to fans as he celebrates at the end of the match.
Manchester City's Joe Hart points to fans as he celebrates at the end of the match.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom (AFP) - 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 (Aug 24).

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, who was making his first competitive appearance of the season after being frozen out by Guardiola.

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 29-year-old England goalkeeper had his name chanted by the club's fans throughout the game.

Hart, who was handed the captain's armband for the game, has been linked with a move to Everton or Sevilla.

His fellow outcast Yaya Toure was also handed a start by Guardiola, who saw Nigerian striker Kelechi Iheanacho hobble off with a muscular injury late on.

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.

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.