If, for some unforeseen reason, Quique Sanchez Flores decides it’s too early in the embryonic Watford career of Costel Pantilimon to start him against Nottingham Forest tomorrow and sticks rigidly to his integration process, then the Romanian will be disappointed but not crestfallen. Not like he was two hours before the 2013 FA Cup final when Roberto Mancini delivered him the biggest disappointment of his career by cruelly leaving him out of the Manchester City starting lineup at Wembley.
Mancini had assured his second-choice keeper that he would start at Wembley having played in every round, conceding just one goal in the tense semi-final win over Chelsea. All the morning papers had the Romanian in their predicted starting XI and he was even offered up by the club to the press in the week for a cup final feature interview. Then Mancini, aware of all the talk about his future at City being on the line, bottled it and restored Joe Hart, his England goalkeeper, to the team for the game against Wigan Athletic.
“That was very hard,” Pantilimon told us yesterday. “I don’t like to remember that moment because it was very difficult for me. I only found out two hours before the game so I didn’t expect it. I respect Mancini a lot because he brought me into the team and gave me a chance to play. He trusted me and gave me confidence.”
Neither Hart or Pantilimon ended up with a winner’s medal because, in the most seismic of shocks, Wigan won the showpiece at Wembley thanks to an unforgettable last-minute winner from Ben Watson. Has Pantilimon joked with his new teammate yet that he would have saved his header had he been minding the City goal instead of Hart?
“I didn’t say that, no, but I said some things,” he said. “It was a tough moment when he scored. I wanted to put that trophy on my CV because I really wanted it and he take it. He was in the same [Wigan] team as my mate Jordi Gomez and we had this discussion during my stay at Sunderland. It was a bad moment but beautiful for them. This is life.”
Pantilimon was in goal and almost on the end of another cup upset the following year. He stood in between the sticks at the Etihad Stadium as goals from Fernando Forestieri and Troy Deeney put Watford in dreamland after 29 minutes. Reality then bit in the second as City scored four goals in a riotous last half hour, including a hat-trick from Sergio Aguero.
“It was a good game,” Pantilimon said. “They played a different system, three at the back, I think. They showed they are a good team.”
Watford are an even better, stronger, more formidable team now and have such strength in depth they can afford to rotate players at the City Ground tomorrow in the fourth-round tie. Quique Sanchez Flores is predicting as many as six changes, including the goalkeeper.
“I hope so,” Pantilimon said. “I want to play for Watford as soon as possible. It’s why I came here. I want to do a job and help the team win. To get far in the FA Cup is important, especially as I really want this trophy on my CV.”