x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pep talks from Reina and a boost in morale on Merseyside

The Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina believes it is only a matter of time before his side are challenging for silverware again.

Pepe Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, has been handed the captain’s armband in the absence of Steven Gerrard and with Jamie Carragher out of the starting XI.
Pepe Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, has been handed the captain’s armband in the absence of Steven Gerrard and with Jamie Carragher out of the starting XI.

Anfield, last Saturday. Pepe Reina's goal is unguarded. Its occupant is nearer the halfway line, exchanging gentle, five-yard passes with a small boy. It scarcely seems ideal preparation for the must-win match that kicks off a few minutes later, but his duties include granting mascots particular attention. It is a sign of his seniority that he is leading Liverpool, albeit temporarily.

"It's an honour," said the Spaniard. "I feel very proud every time I wear the armband. I know the two captains of Liverpool are Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher and they do it really well, so in their absence, for a player who is not from Liverpool and who is not even from England, it is an especial honour for me."

Yet with Gerrard injured and Carragher consigned to the bench, Reina is the stand-in captain, set to retain the armband for today's trip to Aston Villa. More than six years and over 300 appearances into his Liverpool career, the goalkeeper, 29, does not have the silverware he had hoped for, but he is amassing accolades.

Comparisons with Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar are, he says: "Scary. It's an honour, of course. I don't think I am right there yet. They are the two greatest goalkeepers of Liverpool's history and they have won too many pieces of silverware for me to be compared with them. All I can hope is just to win half of it. What I really hope is that I play as many games as they did for this club."

Both are among the select group of nine to represent Liverpool 600 times. At his current rate of progress, Reina could reach that landmark in 2017. The troubled summer of 2010, however, led him to consider his future. Arsenal made a £20 million (Dh114m) bid that Liverpool rejected. Now, with a change of ownership and management, he sees his future on Merseyside.

"I have still five years on my contract," he said: "I am happy here, my family has settled down and at the moment it is nothing but thinking in red: Liverpool red."

Having new hands at the helm has helped. Tom Hicks and George Gillett were forced out last autumn, with Fenway Sports Group replacing their fellow Americans in the boardroom.

"It has been very positive," Reina said. "We have the stability we wanted now. We are rebuilding the team, we are trying to improve from the last couple of years and I think we are on the right way."

An upturn in morale is reflected by improved results. Liverpool were 12th when Roy Hodgson was sacked in January. They visit Villa Park in sixth place, knowing a win could put them fifth.

Performances against their peers suggest they are capable of better. While a 4-0 thrashing at Tottenham Hotspur represented the season's nadir, Liverpool have defeated Chelsea twice and Arsenal and enjoyed the better of draws with both Manchester clubs.

"We just know how to compete against them," Reina said. "When the weight of the game is shared we can handle it better."

After worrying the best, the challenge, as he accepts, is to improve against the rest. "Hopefully, we will get those performances as well against the other teams."

It is in such matches that their destiny will be determined. "To go back to the Champions League is our main target," Reina said. That requires a first top-four finish in three seasons.

The long-term objective, however, is to do something Liverpool have not achieved since Kenny Dalglish's first spell in charge: win the title.

"It is definitely a dream I have had since the very first day I joined," Reina said. "And after 20 years without having won, we know how special it would be for the people and for the town of Liverpool so we will try our best. We are rebuilding the team and getting through a time of reconstruction and, overall, I think the season has been good. I think we will land silverware sooner or later."

The first opportunity comes in the Carling Cup. Liverpool face Manchester City in a semi-final match next month, with the carrot of a meeting with Championship opposition, whether Cardiff City or Crystal Palace, at Wembley Stadium in February's final.

"It is a competition we have really high hopes of winning," he said. "From the beginning we have used our best 11 to try and win the games. We know how tough it is to play against Man City and we will try our best, but it is a competition we really want to win."

For Reina, whose three penalty saves in the shootout secured Liverpool their last trophy, the 2006 FA Cup, the chance to play at Wembley is of particular importance. "It would be my first time to play at Wembley with Liverpool and to see Wembley half full of Liverpool supporters will be amazing."

Reina's first employers, Barcelona, have won at England's national stadium more recently than his current club. A graduate of Barca's famed youth system, he attributes their success to the work done at La Masia.

"They have won many trophies in the past three or four seasons and it is not just about the work they are doing now," he said.

"It's about the home players. They have been working on the base, the young players for more than 20 years and they have their reward now. At the moment, they are the best club in the world. It's a fact."

At the moment, too, Reina's country, Spain, are without question the world leaders. As understudy to Iker Casillas, he has winners' medals from Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup and aims to add a third in Euro 2012.

"We know that nobody has won three successive tournaments before so we hope to become the first ones in history," he said.

It amounts to a busy year ahead of Reina, whose day job is frustrating forwards but who enjoys annoying another in his time off. "When I have spare time," he said. "I enjoy beating Dirk Kuyt at golf."

Pepe Reina was speaking in association with Standard Chartered

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