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Joe Hart an option for Chelsea with Thibaut Courtois future in doubt

Joe Hart is the latest name to be linked with succeeding Thibaut Courtois as Chelsea's No.1 goalkeeper next season, and it's easy to see why.

The Premier League leaders know the day is fast approaching when they will face a difficult decision over the future of Courtois, who has regained his form under Antonio Conte this season after a shaky and injury-affected 2015-16 campaign.

Courtois is contracted at Stamford Bridge until 2019, meaning he will enter the final two years of his deal this summer. That is typically the moment when smart clubs either agree extensions with important players or look to move them on for maximum value.

Failing to do either results in key players appearing more attainable to rival clubs as well as gaining leverage in contract negotiations, as Arsenal are finding out with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Chelsea are determined not to fall into the same trap with Courtois or Diego Costa, whose deal also expires in 2019.

It is a matter of "when" rather than "if" Courtois returns to Spain, where he spent three hugely successful years on loan at Atletico Madrid. Nothing he has experienced in London matches the cultural and emotional appeal of the Spanish capital, where his partner and child live

Real Madrid have made no secret of their desire to acquire Courtois, and the Belgian has overtaken Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea as their No.1 target since that infamous botched transfer of August 2015.

The only question is whether or not Courtois can be persuaded to delay his return to Spain with a contract extension, and this remains Chelsea's preferred course. Elite goalkeepers are difficult to come by and even harder to replace. At just 24, he should have many more years of excellence ahead.

Hart also enters the final two years of his Manchester City contract this summer, and will likely be the next most high-profile goalkeeper on the market even if Pep Guardiola decides that the Claudio Bravo experiment has run its course.

Joe Hart, on loan at Serie A side Torino, is expected to leave Manchester City on a permanent deal in the summer.

Torino have already made it clear that wage demands mean a permanent move for Hart is beyond their financial capabilities, and if the England No.1 wants another six-figure salary at his next club, the most attractive suitors are likely to come from the Premier League.

While not quite at the level of Courtois, Hart remains a talented shot-stopper and signing him would bring Chelsea the additional benefit of another prominent home-grown player at a time when John Terry may be transitioning into a non-playing role or departing Stamford Bridge altogether.

The fit on the pitch is not ideal. Conte likes his goalkeepers to be more comfortable with the ball at their feet than Hart is, even if he doesn't leave them quite as exposed with his tactics as Guardiola does. Courtois admits that he has made dramatic improvements in this regard in recent years. 

But if Chelsea decide their best option is to secure a capable stopgap this summer before setting their long-term sights on a younger man with a higher upside, such as AC Milan sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma, then few realistic candidates can match Hart's experience and achievements.

These are decisions for later, and Conte has more pressing issues to deal with. The next two Premier League matches against Liverpool and Arsenal could go a long way towards tightening Chelsea's grip on the title, but their head coach must also settle the future of Asmir Begovic before the end of January.

Conte confirmed last week that Chelsea are considering an offer for Begovic, reported to be in the region of £12 million from Bournemouth -- good value for a No.2 goalkeeper signed from Stoke City for just £8m in the summer of 2015, even if the Bosnian is the most over-qualified back-up in the Premier League.

But any agreement to let Begovic go will depend on Chelsea's ability to secure a replacement. Conte's faint praise on Friday of third-choice Eduardo, who is yet to make a single appearance and will be a free agent at the end of this season, made it clear he does not trust the Portuguese veteran to step up a spot.

If none can be found, Chelsea will be comfortable parking the issue of Begovic's future until the summer. The Bosnian has been unfailingly professional since his arrival at Stamford Bridge and there will be few concerns about his attitude if a January move is denied him.

Should they win the Premier League title, Chelsea will be able to approach their key summer decisions from a position of enviable strength. But it is startling to consider the real possibility that none of Conte's three senior goalkeepers may be at Stamford Bridge next season.

Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.


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