The England goalkeeper has drawn criticism from Roy Keane and Roberto Mancini this season but he is ready to fight back
Despite a season of travails for Manchester City Joe Hart remains defiant. "We have not fallen away. People will say it's a massive backwards step not winning it," he says of the club's faltering title defence. "But it's not that. We are still the side to beat, still competing with every game, still kept our respect and dignity, and we will come again. We are not a flash in the pan."
City take the short trip to Old Trafford on Monday evening for the 165th Manchester derby trailing Sir Alex Ferguson's side by 15 points with only eight games remaining. This follows a dismal Champions League campaign that ended with Roberto Mancini's men bottom of their group and unable to progress to the knockout stages.
Hart concedes their championship challenge is up and Manchester United will claim a 20th crown. "Hopefully it won't happen but to be honest it looks like it will," the 25-year-old says. "It's something to deal with, but we will just have to keep blasting until the end of the season, keep trying to win and get as many points as we can to cement second and hopefully that will take us into next year."
Fifteen points is a yawning gap, so have City regressed or United improved? "It's not like they have won a bonus game worth 15 points and gone above us," says Hart. "They have kept winning and we haven't, so it has to be a true reflection. We have not quite finished teams off and little things have not gone our way – and I don't mean in terms of luck, but in the way we have played. United have been a machine who have kept killing. We haven't. They were always going to come back strongly, and we intended to do the same. It's just how the season panned out.
"I'm not really interested in giving them credit, it's about what we do. Our standards have to be higher. You have to keep readjusting them, consistently. It's not a case of intending to win the league, and when you have done it, saying 'Right, that's it'. You have to keep re-assessing. Every time we have had to take a step backwards we try to take a couple forwards and we have been quite good at that."
Despite a United side that includes Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, Hart would not choose any for a combined Manchester XI. "I wouldn't pick anyone ahead of my team-mates," he said.
"I feel we have enough to win any game and that's what we should be doing. In various games we haven't done it. Every team will say you need at least eight performing, and sometimes we haven't had that. Other times we have had all eleven performing in one game and won easily, rather than balancing it out, which was maybe the case last season. That's not a criticism of anyone. It's tough to be at your best all season, and you need to be there for each other."
Hart is honest when assessing a season in which he has received the first concerted criticism of his career. Errors for England and City have drawn negative assessments from Roy Keane and, more surprisingly, Hart's manager, Roberto Mancini. Their relationship has appeared strained due to the Italian's public dismay at Hart's mistakes. These include howlers that allowed Sunderland's winner in the 1-0 defeat on Boxing Day and February's 3-1 defeat at Southampton, when Hart was culpable for the second goal.
"It was pretty obvious what went wrong – a schoolboy would have been disappointed, let alone myself," Hart says of the latter error. "The only thing I can look at when I do something like that is: have I prepared right? Of course I have. Did I do my best? Of course I did. It happens sometimes."
Before England's qualifier with Poland in October Keane branded him "cocky" and following the match Hart apologised after misjudgment at a corner allowed Kamil Glik's equaliser as Roy Hodgson's side dropped two points. The following month Hart was again shaky, at fault for at least two of the goals when Sweden scored four in a friendly.
"It's been a tough season, not quite as free-flowing," Hart says. "I have worked hard and taken criticism but I have also taken praise and you have to try to stay consistent throughout. I have not always been brilliant but sometimes I have done well, and I will keep fighting to get back to a level I want to be at."
The corresponding derby last season ended with City's 6-1 humiliation of United but Hart plays that result down. "Whether we have won 6-1 or they had, you would get the same performance. It was just one result in a good season for us. There are other things on the agenda now and that isn't even on our minds," he says, before denying next weekend's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley is a greater concern.
"It's not really a bigger game. This is a big game for us. We owe it to our fans to put on a performance. We have not given them the highs of last year but hopefully we can give them a good couple of results and repair a bit of the damage. We're not a team that looks at any game in a scared kind of way. We need to take second place and go into the semi-final feeling good. We are still in the FA Cup, so there's plenty to play for, but we would prefer snapping at United's heels. It's not an ideal world and the league isn't built around Man City."
Next season he hopes it will be again.
• Joe Hart is on EA Sports Fifa 13 Ultimate Team. You can build your squad, auction for new players, compete online and buy Ultimate Team points at game.co.uk