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Evergreen Gianluigi Buffon highlights England's goalkeeping quandary

Gareth Southgate admits England have a problem with their goalkeepers.

Gianluigi Buffon was winning his 176th cap for Italy on Friday night, just as Jordan Pickford was earning his second for England.

Gareth Southgate has a number of issues to resolve as England manager before his team begin their World Cup campaign against Tunisia in Volgograd in June and the vast gulf in experience between his best goalkeeper and Italy's No. 1 highlights the first problem he comes to when filling out his teamsheet.

Buffon, despite announcing his international retirement last November following Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup in the wake of a playoff defeat against Sweden, will make his 177th appearance for the Azzurri at Wembley on Tuesday if selected by interim coach Luigi Di Biagio.

The Juventus No. 1 simply cannot let go, either at club level or on the international stage, so on he goes.

Even the challenge posed by AC Milan's prodigious young keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is not enough to shift Buffon and it really is anyone's guess as to when the 40-year-old will eventually hang up his gloves.

There are many in Italy who believe that time has already caught up with Buffon -- his performance in last September's 3-0 World Cup qualifying defeat against Spain in Madrid was particularly unimpressive -- but he is still performing at the highest level for Juventus and none of his rivals for the national jersey have yet been able to usurp him.

Southgate has a different problem, however.

Rather than being faced with an old-stager who just won't go away, Southgate is attempting to make the best of a bad hand of inexperience, injury problems and loss of form with his goalkeeping options.

But England's issues in goal are really nothing new. Having once been regarded as a breeding ground for the world's best keepers, England now imports more than it produces and those who do make it into the country's No. 1 position always seem to fall short of realising their potential.

Since Buffon made his international debut for Italy against Russia in October 1997, England have used no fewer than 17 different goalkeepers, from the likes of David Seaman, Tim Flowers and Nigel Martyn, through to Joe Hart, Jack Butland and Pickford.

While Gianluigi Buffon has shown staying power with Italy, Joe Hart's form has taken a nosedive.

If Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope is handed his debut at some stage on Tuesday, that number will creep up to 18.

Southgate would love to have a Buffon figure among his options in goal, but the closest he has to that is the 75-times capped Hart, whose form and reputation have been in a downward spiral, arguably since his bizarre antics during the penalty shoot-out against Italy at Euro 2012 -- remember those face-pulling attempts at distracting Andrea Pirlo?

The fact that Hart is still in with a shout of making the squad for the World Cup, after a hugely disappointing campaign on loan at West Ham from Manchester City, sums up Southgate's headache.

Butland had been regarded as Hart's most likely successor until his progress was halted by a long-term injury ankle sustained against Germany in March 2016.

The Stoke keeper is now back to full fitness, and he may start against Italy on Tuesday, but his form has not recovered as well as his ankle. Butland has also made just six appearances for England since his debut against Italy in 2012, which illustrates his inability to make a sustained push for the No. 1 spot.

Everton's Pickford has emerged as the favourite to start in goal at the World Cup, but while the 23-year-old is confident, athletic and brave, and impressive with the ball at his feet, he is also prone to the kind of errors made by young goalkeepers.

Which is why Hart, despite his decline, is likely to travel to Russia as Southgate's No. 3.

Jordan Pickford
Jordan Pickford seems to be favourite to be England No.1 but he isn't without risks attached.

If Southgate was to go with Pope, who has the best record of any English keeper in the Premier League this season, his three goalkeepers would have, at most, 11 appearances between them ahead of the opening game against Tunisia if they were to share the role in the forthcoming friendlies against Italy, Nigeria and Costa Rica.

Hart's experience could be vital, if only as a senior teammate for Butland and Pickford to work alongside during the tournament.

Southgate has shown an inclination to be bold and decisive, however, with his selections since taking charge in the autumn of 2016.

Wayne Rooney has walked away into international retirement, while the likes of Theo Walcott, Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill have been jettisoned.

Gambling on three relatively inexperienced goalkeepers would be a huge risk for Southgate, however, and he is not prone to recklessness, so a cautious approach is likely to be Hart's salvation.

But while Buffon gives Italy certainty, reliability and presence, Southgate has yet to settle on a goalkeeper who offers any of those qualities, never mind all three.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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