Costel Pantilimon survives wounds to stand tall at Manchester City

The Romanian literally threw himself into being a goalkeeper and now finds himself batting with Joe Hart to be City's No1

Costel Pantilimon could do with a change of fortune. The man who dislodged Joe Hart as Manchester City's No1 at the end of October was dropped by Manuel Pellegrini after the 6-3 drubbing of Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium a month ago despite having done little wrong.

The sharp-eyed Pellegrini may have noted a couple of questionable takes of high balls by Pantilimon during a run in the first XI that numbered seven Premier League games and a Champions League outing.

The statistics show that in the league Pantilimon conceded seven goals and kept three clean sheets, while registering a saves-to-shots ratio of 71%. In Hart's nine matches until being dropped he was beaten 11 times, also kept three clean sheets, and returned a saves-to-shots ratio of 62%. Yet as City welcome West Ham United for Wednesday evening's Capital One Cup semi-final first leg the Romanian's place is again in the balance.

So far, Pellegrini's policy has been to select his second-choice keeper for cup competitions. Pantilimon was in the XI that drew 1-1 at Blackburn Rovers in Saturday's third-round FA Cup tie, so by rights should again be named to face the Hammers. Yet the Chilean refused to confirm if he will be. "Tomorrow we will see the 11 starters," the manager said.

Unlike the outfield player who can move around if displaced from their specialist position, the second-choice No1 is firmly on the outside. The irony here is that Pantilimon did not grow up wanting to be a keeper. As a young boy he dreamed of emulating Romania's greatest ever footballer, Gheorghe Hagi. Then his father, Costica, intervened and the desire to be the new "Maradona of the Carpathians" faded.

"I used to play as a striker, I always went forward to score goals. I hated staying in goal," Pantilimon recalled. "I had good technique, that's why my first club signed me. When I was eight or nine, my dad told me it was better for me to become a keeper. He said that I'm tall enough to do well as a goalkeeper. I thought it was a good idea, and I started to like saving shots. I was very courageous – I jumped after every ball, no matter how far it was from reach or how hard the surface was. I had wounds all over my body, but didn't care."

Roberto Mancini, Pellegrini's predecessor, bought Pantilimon for £3m after he impressed for Politechnica Timisoara during City's 3-0 Europa League aggregate win over them in August 2010.

Yet for Jonathan McKain, a former team-mate, the transfer was unexpected as Pantilimon's 6ft 8in frame belied an introverted persona. "Playing in the national team [at that time] will have helped Costel, but it was a bit of surprise because they're such a big club. But congratulations to him because he's a good goalkeeper," the defender says. "The coaches at Politechnica worked on making Pantilimon more of a presence. When I played with him he was only young, 18 or 19. He was very tall, a very quiet guy. He didn't have a big personality. He was a great shot stopper, good with his feet, agile for a big man. Really a nice guy so I think he needed to have more of that dominating feeling that goalkeepers need.

"The coaches and manager talked to him about dominating his penalty area a bit better. Obviously he's got a lot better because his shot stopping and distribution with his feet was very good, so that was the aspect he's developed in the last few years."

Pantilimon played first for Aerostar Bacau, the hometown club that was the works team of the company that employed his locksmith father. By 16, he was first choice for Bacau, then of the Romanian third division, and departed two years later when Politechnica bought him for €100,000 (£837,000).

Costel Sofronie, Pantilimon's coach at Aerostar, says: "He was very tall and slim, and was nice to everyone else. Costel was a sociable kid, he used to speak a lot because he didn't get the chance to talk too much at home with his parents [Pantilimon's parents are both deaf]. He listened to whatever I had to tell him.

"He started in goal and stayed there. He was the only kid who didn't ask to play as a striker or midfielder in his first day with us. Many of the kids run home right after training. Costel wasn't like that. He asked me to stay and work after everyone was gone. Even in the holidays. That happened for five or six years in a row. He was very stubborn and even meddling, but I now realise it was all worth it.

"His biggest weakness was playing the ball with his foot. I asked him to play hundreds of hours of football-tennis in order to improve his technique."

Sofronie adds: "He trained more than everyone else. We had to feed him supplementary [food]. He used to eat 3-times as much as a normal kid. I helped him with vitamins, clothes and money. Costel was aware of the fact that football was his chance to succeed in life. He never said the training was too hard."

Pantilimon made his debut in Romanian top-flight football for Timisoara in a 1-1 draw with Dinamo on 4 March 2007, a year before his international bow, the 2-1 win over Georgia. But after making 15 appearances for Romania helost his starting berth after the move to City.

Now, Pantilimon keeps fingers crossed that he will once again not be the unfortunate fall-guy. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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