x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Liverpool's Pepe Reina stands at a crossroads ahead of FA Cup final

The Spaniard is possibly the best goalkeeper in England but beating Chelsea tomorrow will not make up for his club's poor season.

Pepe Reina celebrates after saving a penalty from Cardiff's Anthony Gerrard to win the Carling Cup in February. Glyn Kirk / AFP
Pepe Reina celebrates after saving a penalty from Cardiff's Anthony Gerrard to win the Carling Cup in February. Glyn Kirk / AFP

A long summer looms for Pepe Reina ahead of his 30th birthday in August. Disappointingly for him, there will be no Champions League preambles for his club, Liverpool.

There may, he hopes, be the extended pursuit of an important international trophy in June.

If his country are successful in retaining the European championship, a busy night for Reina, Spain's reserve goalkeeper, awaits when he and colleagues return with the prize to Madrid.

Reina would be forgiven for thinking, even if he collects a gold medal for his club in Saturday's FA Cup final and another for Spain at Euro 2012, that his career is at a crossroads.

In England, he is still often referred to as the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, or at least the most complete, with his assets of experience and bold shot-stopping; yet, at the moment, he plays for the Premier League's eighth-ranked team.

In Spain, he is considered an impeccable goalkeeper, although personally unlucky that he is a direct contemporary of so many good Spanish keepers. One of them, Iker Casillas, is the national captain. Another, Victor Valdes, is the collector of serial honours with Barcelona.

Reina would reply he is lucky to be turning 30 when Spain have so many strengths. And, he declares as much, long and loud, to his compatriots.

When the Spanish national squad officially presented their World Cup trophy to the Spanish people in the centre of Madrid in July 2010, an immense throng gathered, and Reina took on the role of master of ceremonies, holding a microphone, his voice the most conspicuous. An extrovert, with a natural charisma, popular among his colleagues, he was the obvious choice as MC.

The role Reina has defined for himself with his national team gives an insight into his positive personality.

Being the reserve goalkeeper - as he is to Casillas with Spain - can be one of the toughest jobs in professional football. The man you are understudying seldom gets injured; he rarely gets suspended.

Reina knows Casillas's status is so high in Spain's hierarchy that his chances of playing key games will be few. So he defines for himself an alternative role.

He becomes the feel-good guy in the camp, a good-humoured motivator, with a ready wit when times are happy, a consoling word whispered in the ear of troubled teammates when they are not.

Perhaps that is a skill he acquired young, an instinct gained while growing up near professional dressing rooms.

Pepe Reina was born the son of a professional goalkeeper, a distinguished one, Manuel Reina, who played for Atletico Madrid in a European Cup final.

Contemporaries of Reina Senior, like Spain's former national coach Luis Aragones, who played in the same Atletico team as Manuel, see something of the father in the son.

Miguel had seen enough by the time Pepe was entering his teens to push him into a career in professional football. It meant sacrifice and some homesickness.

At 13, Pepe left his immediate family to join Barcelona's fabled academy system, a competitive hothouse where among his contemporaries would be another ambitious goalkeeper: Victor Valdes.

Their duel for what would always be a single vacancy became an intriguing, intense battle.

"I wouldn't say we were friends at that stage," Valdes said.

Indeed so competitive at Barcelona were Reina and Valdes that sometimes they hardly spoke to one another.

That was a decade ago. Both men have matured, and though Valdes would win the joust to become number one in a Barcelona team set for greatness, Reina had graduated earlier to the first-team.

"What Pepe had when we were younger was a physical advantage," said Valdes, "he was taller." At six foot four, and broadly built, Reina is imposing.

He also has the essential assets among modern goalkeepers of confidence beyond his six-yard box, and dexterity with his feet.

"You look at how he deals with passes back to him from defenders," said Frans Hoek, the Dutch goalkeeping guru who coached the young Reina, "and you'll see how good he is with both left and right feet. We spent a lot time working on that. And he is mentally strong."

Manuel Pellegrini, Reina's former coach at Villarreal, said: "He has a special sort of maturity. When he was 23, it seemed like he was 30."

Reina had joined Villarreal from Barcelona. From there, Rafa Benitez signed him from Liverpool in the summer of 2005, just after Jerzy Dudek, then Liverpool's first-choice keeper, had performed heroics in a Champions League final, which Liverpool won against Milan on penalties.

Dudek immediately gave way to the Spaniard, and almost nobody in Liverpool would challenge the sense of Benitez's decision.

Though, unlike Dudek, Reina has not won a European Cup with the Anfield club - he was on the losing side in the 2007 final - he is regarded as one of Benitez's best recruits.

He was, last year, high on Manchester United's list of transfer targets, despite that club's reluctance to sign Liverpool players, to replace Edwin Van der Sar.

Instead, United plumped for David De Gea, who may win more caps for Spain than Reina has, but is fortunate not to have goalkeepers of the standard of Casillas and Valdes among his compatriot contemporaries.

Arsenal had wanted Reina, too. He cannot help but wonder, wistfully, if moving to either United or Arsenal might have been a wise idea, something to push for.

The Liverpool he clearly loves will end this English Premier League season a long way beneath United and Arsenal in the table.

He may even be left, after tomorrow's FA Cup final, pinning his hopes of 2011/12 fulfilment solely on a European Championship in which he may not play but which, he hopes, will end with him waving the Spanish flag, microphone in hand and delivering his best one-liners at the big party in Madrid.

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