Pantilimon exit leaves a void
There were seven games in the 2013-14 season that had great significance in Manchester City finishing the campaign as champions. It's probably fair to say the calendar year of 2013 wasn't too kind to Joe Hart, and for a month and a half in the autumn the England number one became City's number two.
Step forward Costel Pantilimon.
Over the seven games the Romanian held down a starting berth at the Etihad, two things became clear. Firstly, Pantilimon wasn't a bad back-up to have for a few games; secondly that Hart is vastly the superior goalkeeper when both are on the top of their form.
In the end, it would turn out to be a very necessary kick on the backside for the Englishman, whose form would turn around on his return to the starting line-up to the point where he'd make title-winning saves further down the fixture list. However, by the time Pellegrini put Hart back in, it was obvious it was the correct decision -- the end of the 6-3 win over Arsenal showed something in the way of a lack of composure.
Pantilimon has had an eventful time at Manchester City for a man who spent all but seven games as the club's number two for his three-season stay. He first came to the fans' attention as Timisoara's goalkeeper when the Romanian side came to Eastlands in the 2010-11 Europa League. Over the two legs, he did enough to convince Roberto Mancini he'd been someone who could play adequate back-up to Hart. He joined on loan at the start of 2011-12, making the move permanent that January.
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Technically, there were always doubts about the Romanian goalkeeper. For a man his size, his command of aerial balls was occasionally shaky and he often struggled to react to the rebound after making a save, largely again down to his height.
At City, Pantilimon didn't get much in the way of game time. His biggest contributions under the Italian came in the cups, though -- with three League Cup wins and one FA Cup defeat to show for his season. In those games he was solid, if not spectacular, and pulled off a couple of good saves, most notably in a 1-0 win at Arsenal in December.
The Romanian remained City's cup goalkeeper under Mancini for the Italian's final season, but for one match. Having not exactly impressed in a 4-2 (after extra time) home defeat to Aston Villa in the League Cup, Pantilimon was back in for the FA Cup run that started with a win over Watford -- where the goalkeeper stopped a one-on-one very impressively. A test at the Britannia was well dealt with, as City earned their first win there in six attempts, before a comfortable run of home games against lower league opposition gave the Blues a trip to Wembley.
It was a big call for Mancini to stick with his cup goalkeeper -- something he hadn't done in the League Cup semifinals the season before -- but stick with him he did and it paid off. Not only was Pantilimon commanding in the air under a lot of Chelsea pressure, he pulled off one of the best saves a back-up goalkeeper will have ever made, as he looked all but beaten by Juan Mata as the Spaniard tried to round him to equalise. The keeper got a hand around his man and scooped the ball away, avoiding conceding a penalty.
In the build-up to the final, though, Pantilimon gave an interview previewing the game. With Mancini already having confirmed he'd stick with his goalkeeper for the match with Wigan, the Romanian did himself no favours by saying he may need to leave City for first team football -- as his national coach had told him. In the end, Mancini went with Hart for the final.
It had looked like Pantilimon may have left at the end of that season, but he remained for the final year of his contract and his first under Pellegrini. He'd end up playing a crucial part in the Blues' title bid in helping Hart return to form -- playing enough matches to pick up a medal himself -- and he finished with a League Cup winners' medal following his four clean sheets in that competition. The only game he didn't play in that run was away to Leicester, when Hart was on punishment detail. The only goal he conceded was to Sunderland's Fabio Borini.
And it's to the opposition from that March trip to Wembley where Pantilimon will move when his contract with the Blues ends next month. He'll leave Manchester City with some good memories and has served the club well, but he was in the ultimate catch 22.
With the Blues he was always going to be number two and for a man aged 27, he's going to want to stand more of a chance of earning the starting jersey on a regular basis. Yet at City, he would always have been guaranteed a better chance of silverware and honours, certainly from the cups.
It leaves a gaping hole for the champions too, while he wasn't on a par with Hart, he was better ranked than a large proportion of the back-up shot-stoppers out there, so finding a replacement won't be easy. Blues fans certainly won't be relishing the prospect of a 36-year-old Richard Wright coming into the team in the event of injury or suspension.
They will have trouble signing a world class goalkeeper to keep Hart on his toes: there's nobody of that standard who could be convinced to drop to the bench and the England goalkeeper won't be happy to be back among the subs for any great length of time either.