Joe Hart’s World Cup dreams appear to have gone up in smoke as Gareth Southgate prepares to name the England squad bound for Russia.
Months of speculation, scrutiny and intrigue come to a head on Wednesday afternoon, when the 23 men charged with taking on the world’s best this summer are revealed.
Their delight will contrast markedly with the disappointment of those missing out, with Hart – comfortably England’s most experienced player – said to have missed the cut.
Despite the 75-cap goalkeeper’s struggles for form and game-time, Southgate spoke glowingly about his professionalism and leadership when third-fiddle to Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland in March’s international meet-up.
The England manager also underlined the importance of the West Ham loanee’s role in getting his country to the World Cup and just last August called the criticised shot-stopper the country’s “best goalkeeper”.
But Burnley’s Nick Pope has reportedly usurped him in pecking order after Southgate called Hart on Monday to tell him he would not be in the squad heading to Russia.
It is a bold – and no doubt difficult – call, but Southgate said in March that he was being “really straight with him throughout” the selection process.
“Joe’s professionalism has been brilliant with us,” the England boss said after the March friendlies. “He’s always performed well for us.
“We had the best defensive record in Europe in qualifying.
“This week, even though he knew he wasn’t going to be involved in the games, he’s been a positive influence on the other players.”
That praise appeared to make Hart’s place safe, so his apparent omission raises questions as to whether Southgate has any jokers up his sleeve.
Uncapped Trent Alexander-Arnold’s promising campaign has put him in with a shout of making a World Cup squad that fellow Liverpool defender Joe Gomez looked set to join until undergoing ankle surgery.
Alfie Mawson, an unused member of the squad in March, is also out after going under the knife, so it will be interesting to see whether Southgate recalls the likes of Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Michael Keane to bolster his three-man defence.
Tottenham right-back Kieran Trippier looks likely to overcome a knee complaint and Southgate’s decision at left-back looks tough given his desire for versatility and the competition for that role.
Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was surely one of the “19 or 20” players that Southgate said in March had sealed their place in the 23, only for a season-ending knee injury to increase the manager’s midfield headache.
Jack Wilshere has not played for his country since the Euro 2016 exit to Iceland but was in line to start against Holland in March before injury put his World Cup hopes in jeopardy.
Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey has performed well recently but last donned the Three Lions in November 2015. Adam Lallana, England’s player of the year in 2016, is a fitness doubt, although Ruben Loftus-Cheek is an exciting option.
The squad will be drawn from the privately-submitted long list of 35 handed to FIFA and, while the world governing body does not need it whittled down until June 4, Southgate will name to 23 to strip unnecessary anxiety and pressure from preparations.
The England manager liked predecessor Sven-Goran Eriksson naming a 23-man squad and five on standby, but the former defender is understood not have settled on the composition and number of those back-up players.
Southgate’s choices will be pawed over at a press conference at Wembley on Thursday, when the process will be in focus as well as his plans for the captaincy and goalkeeper in Russia.
The majority of players will meet up on Monday as World Cup preparations get under way, although Manchester United and Chelsea players will be given an extended break after the FA Cup final.
Liverpool’s players will get similar respite after the Champions League final against Real Madrid.
England have warm-up friendlies against Nigeria at Wembley on June 2 and Costa Rica in Leeds on June 7, with the Group G opener against Tunisia on June 18.
More from Planet Sport:
Betting preview: 18/1 Juan Martin del Potro can reign in Rome (Tennis365)
Feature: Conclusions from the Spanish Grand Prix (PlanetF1)
Feature: Who’s hot and who’s not! (Planet Rugby)
Quiz! Test your knowledge on the career of Alexander Zverev (Tennis365)
Quiz: Test your knowledge of the career of Virat Kohli (Cricket365)