Costel Pantilimon is the Premier League's Goalkeeping MVP, not De Gea or Courtois
It wasn't quite the great escape we witnessed last season but Sunderland have done it again, avoiding the drop ahead of the final day of the season after what looked likely to be a troubling end to the campaign. The Wearsiders certainly have Dick Advocaat to thank for arresting their slump of just 1 win in 12, with the fans now praying that Mrs Advocaat allows the Dutchman to stay on as manager, having steered the Black Cats to safety in just 8 games.
While the man known as the Little General certainly deserves great credit, with Sunderland's current unbeaten streak of 5 matches now the longest they've managed all season, his lieutenants on the field have rallied together in recent weeks. One man perhaps more important than any other to the club's successful survival is Costel Pantilimon, whose heroics at the Emirates fittingly secured the Black Cats top-flight status for another season.
In terms of the outstanding goalkeepers of the 2014/15 campaign, David de Gea has stolen the limelight, with Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois mooted as his closest competitor this season. It's all too easy to suggest that players of the top clubs must have been the best though, after all surely Sunderland wouldn't have been in a relegation dog fight if their keeper was that good.
In truth, though, for the third season running Sunderland's goalkeeper has arguably been the most important in terms of any respective club's fate. In 2013/14 Vito Mannone, who had failed to make the grade at Arsenal, was named Sunderland's player of the season - repeating the feat of Liverpool-bound Simon Mignolet the season previous - and deservedly so as the Italian earned the highest WhoScored.com rating (7.03) of any player to make more than 20 appearances last season.
A summer move for Pantilimon, whose contract had expired at Manchester City, looked a shrewd one on Sunderland's part but perhaps an odd one for the player. Mannone had more than earned his place as the team's first choice keeper and it seemed as though the giant Romanian may be trading the bench at the Etihad for that at the Stadium of Light.
He unsurprisingly began the season as second choice, but it was a game against Mannone's former club Arsenal that would see the Italian lose his place after a string of costly errors. Pantilimon was given his chance and hasn't looked back since, starting every game in the Premier League, culminating in a man of the match display against the same side that Mannone had helped to a 2-0 win back in October. The 6'9" shot-stopper produced 8 saves to keep a Gunners onslaught at bay, earning a rating of 8.79 from WhoScored.com.
It lifted Pantilimon's seasonal rating to 7.12; now the highest of any keeper in the league, earning him a place in WhoScored.com's team of the season as things stand. He is also the only goalkeeper to have the highest rating for his side in the Premier League this season and if there is any justice, Sunderland's player of the season will be their goalkeeper for the third successive year.
It's abundantly clear that the Black Cats' recruitment, when it has come to a position of such great importance to any side in a relegation battle, has been paramount to retaining their place in the Premier League. It’s also an indictment on the outfielders tasked with protecting their number one.
Many might suggest that Pantilimon has garnered such an impressive statistical rating purely based on the fact that he has more to do than those in the upper reaches of the table. While he certainly has been far busier than the likes of Courtois, De Gea and former teammate Hart, with Pantilimon now having produced the most saves in the Premier League (139) despite making just 28 appearances, his efficiency is telling.
Indeed, of all keepers to make at least 20 league appearances this season the Romanian's save success rate of 78.4% is by far the best in the league. His closest rival (Adrian) is back on 72.6%, while Courtois (71.8%) and Hart (71.6%) rank fourth and fifth respectively. The surprise here is that David de Gea, who has been so heralded for some frankly remarkable moments of brilliance this season, is back in eighth with a far more modest 69.4% - a full 9% lower than that of Sunderland's safe pair of gargantuan hands.
This season hasn't been without its hairy moments for Pantilimon, recently shipping four to the likes of Palace and Villa, but the good performances have far outweighed the bad. De Gea and Courtois may have been compared as the best two keepers in the league this season, but none have played a more influential role for their team than that of Sunderland's latest saviour between the sticks.