Joe Hart should concentrate on the positives. He might care to linger on the moment, seven minutes from the interval here, when Per Mertesacker trundled his way through a muddle of markers to the edge of the six-yard box and thumped a point-blank header goalwards, from which Hart summoned a breathtakingly instinctive save at full stretch down to his left. Or, indeed, the rapid spring to his feet and block with his left foot from Max Kruse's follow-up seconds later.

So merciless is football at this level that Hart had no opportunity to bask in that excellence given that England dozed at the resultant corner, with Mertesacker more ruthless second time round.

The sight of the national team's best goalkeeper conjuring those reaction saves was still heartening in the context of recent traumas. The last time Hart had touched a ball in competitive action had been to pick it out of the Manchester City net at Stamford Bridge, his face contorted in frustration as he bellowed "keeper's, fucking keeper's" into the night sky while team-mates sank to the turf at his back. It was reassuring to see him back.

Life since that confusion with Matija Nastasic, which handed Fernando Torres his winner for Chelsea, has been spent shivering on the sidelines watching Costel Pantilimon in goal at club level and, last Friday, Fraser Forster make his debut for England.

Hart's reputation has suffered out of the picture. There were ironic cheers from the home supporters at Wembley when, after five minutes and 53 seconds, he clutched Marcel Schmelzer's left-wing cross in his midriff for his first touch of the ball.

The perception is that those errors – whether against Scotland or Bayern Munich this season, or even stretching back to last when his relationship with the then City manager, Roberto Mancini, had deteriorated so rapidly – has made him a liability. The reality is he remains first choice for a reason.

Hart would contest that his recent form was as slapdash as has been portrayed. This is a player who has won the Premier League's golden glove award three years in succession, a keeper who has kept clean sheets in 21 of his past 46 top-flight appearances. His record with England is just as impressive, with 19 shutouts in his 38 caps. The memory drifts back to the Maracanã in the summer when, despite conceding twice, he had excelled when Brazil had England under the cosh.

It is possible for a goalkeeper to thrive for long periods but be prone to the odd aberration to wreck all the good work. Yet Hart might point to the seven different centre-back combinations that City have employed in 11 league games this season as disruption beyond his control. Or, indeed, to Manuel Pellegrini's new demands for a higher defensive line that has required tweaks to his game. The Nastasic mix-up was born of a breakdown in communication, as Hart's pained reaction reflected, even if there was anxiety in that dash from the box as the final whistle approached.

The sight of him charging out of the area and clattering Chris Smalling just after the hour mark was an awkward reminder of previous rushes of blood, though at least he had screamed a warning in his sprint this time. This was another new centre-half pairing behind whom to patrol and there was always likely to be teething trouble at some stage against a side ranked No2 in the world.

The cameras had fixed on Hart as Mertesacker slid away into the corner in celebration six minutes from the interval, though culpability for Germany's winner lay elsewhere. Toni Kroos's centre had been fizzed over wonderfully, but Wayne Rooney, Smalling and Tom Cleverley were all out-jumped for the Arsenal defender to guide his header into the corner.

The goalkeeper wore a frown as he retired, yet Hart did not let his own display dip. When Phil Jagielka's challenge presented the ball to Marco Reus in front of goal, he darted forward to trim the angle and blocked smartly as a second beckoned.

There was another fine stop just after that clash with Smalling, down to his right from Mario Götze's drive, though Roy Hodgson had expected nothing less. Lost amid brief assessments of his personnel came the manager's tribute – "Joe Hart proved I was right about him" – which summed it up.

The management will glow with every assured performance delivered by the first-choice keeper between now and Brazil. The reality is he is still not properly challenged for inclusion in the England side. John Ruddy works with the national goalkeeping coach Dave Watson on a daily basis at Norwich, but both he and Forster boast a solitary cap each. Ben Foster must recover from injury, excel at West Bromwich Albion and, if offered the chance, impress against Denmark in March if he is to oust the current No1. That feels unlikely. This is Hart's role and, by and large, this was an encouraging return to action.

Given that successive defeats have drained momentum from the qualification campaign, England must cling to every positive they can.