Quique Sanchez Flores only discovered ten minutes before kick-off yesterday that Costel Pantilimon was, quite unbelievably, unaware he was down to start the FA Cup quarter-final tie after no-one corrected the head coach on an oversight he made in the team meeting.
Sanchez Flores stated openly in Friday’s press conference that Pantilimon would start the FA Cup tie at the Emirates so it came as a bombshell, certainly in the press room and to Watford’s media team, when the teamsheet was submitted with Pantilimon on the bench and Heurelho Gomes in goal. Pantilimon and Gomes warmed up on the pitch for nearly half an hour before the game, firmly believing the Brazilian was going to start the game and the Romanian was, somewhat harshly, being left on the bench.
Pantilimon suffered FA Cup heartbreak in 2013 when he was controversially left out of the Manchester City cup final side at the 11th hour by Roberto Mancini. The way Sam Allardyce made him carry the can for Sunderland’s 3-1 defeat at Chelsea in December, restoring Vito Mannone to No 1 in the process, is believed to have been the reason behind his swift exit from the Stadium of Light. The 6ft 8in stopper must have thought it was third time unlucky and his mind must have been racing during the warm-up ahead of yesterday’s game against Arsenal.
However, during the final instructions delivered by the head coach in the dressing room in the bowels of the Emirates, Pantilimon realised by the way Sanchez Flores was talking to him that he was playing after all, prompting a frantic late tweak of the submitted teamsheet which is usually handed in an hour and 15 minutes before kick-off. Troy Deeney and Dean Austin traditionally hand it in. The teams are then publicly announced an hour before the game. The mix-up, we are told, originated from Sanchez Flores mistakenly using Gomes’ numbered magnet when depicting his line-up on the tactics board in the morning team meeting at the hotel in London where they stayed overnight. Sanchez Flores’ inner coaching circle apparently knew Pantilimon was playing, as he told them in the week, but the team line-up on the board was taken as read by the players and whoever wrote the line-up down on the official teamsheet.
The administration error does raise slight question marks over the communication channels and makes one wonder why the senior players, plus Pantilimon and the goalkeeping coach Paolo De Toffol, did not challenge the head coach’s decision or at least make a polite enquiry about what would have been a controversial selection choice. Pantilimon played in two of the three previous rounds and was yet to concede a goal.
“I’m not sure what was going on,” said Derek Payne, the former Watford midfielder summarising the game for BBC Three Counties Radio. “He was brilliant today, I like him and he just has that presence. The save from Giroud was so quick. You wouldn’t think he’d get down as well as he does. He’s got experience, he’s won a lot and whoever plays out of those two [Gomes or Pantilimon], you’d be confident if you were playing in front of them.”
Rene Gilmartin marvelled at the performance of his teammate, which was even more impressive when you consider the lack of mental preparation time.
“He was superb today,” said Gilmartin, the No 3 keeper who is working his way back from a dislocated kneecap. “He made a fantastic save from Giroud and even when the ball hit the post, he’s on his feet quickly and trying to make it difficult by spreading himself and making himself big. I think he’s been fantastic and he’s a really nice man. He’s been a great addition to the squad.”