Pepe Reina seeks redemption
Liverpool's keeper has had a poor season by his standards and today at Wembley he hopes to put that right – especially if it means denying his mate Fernando Torres, he tells Ian Herbert
A Spaniard packing up his troubles and heading for Wembley in search of some consolation to take from a season of troubles and self-scrutiny. What should have been the story of Fernando Torres, going into this evening's FA Cup final against the club where he was once worshipped, has been appropriated by Pepe Reina instead.
Torres taught the Liverpool goalkeeper a little about what the shredding of self-belief looks like, when the two were next-door neighbours during the days of Rafael Benitez's Spanish Armada at Anfield. It was from behind his curtains, towards the end of that era, that Reina would witness his friend walking his dogs in the early mornings, so obviously consumed with unhappiness.
Torres called that his "dark place". But while Reina's decision to stay for Kenny Dalglish's onward journey seemed a safer bet than Torres' high- rolling gamble on west London, he has been immersed in a struggle of his own, with errors at Fulham, Manchester City and Newcastle United removing some of the invulnerability which had made him a 29-year-old rock at the club.
Just how much self-questioning there has been only reveals itself when Reina is asked, in a casual, naming-no-games kind of way, how he rates his season. "Bad," he replies and that fat little word stops you in your tracks, even though you know that he has never been one to dance around things.
"I don't think my season has been good at all," he continues. "It has been below my standards but I am working hard and trying to improve on a daily basis. I know I haven't been great this season but first of all I want to help the team in the final and then get back to my best next season."
It would help if he could put his finger on it. Why wasn't his body behind the Sergio Aguero shot which slipped under him at the Etihad Stadium in January? How could he have fumbled the Danny Murphy shot which allowed Clint Dempsey a winner at Fulham the month before? The headbutt aimed at Newcastle's James Perch last month somehow summed up the frustration.
There have been four different goalkeeping coaches at Melwood this season but he isn't reaching for that excuse. "They have all been great. I have no problem with any goalkeeping coach. That is not the issue. It is all about my own form and the way I play ..."
So what's the explanation, then? "You cannot be at the top of your game all the time, although you do try," he reasons. "You have ups and downs and certainly we as a team haven't been as consistent as we should have been. I don't know. I have to keep working. I had six really good years before this one and people got used to that level from me but sometimes you have a dip in form and you have to accept that.
"Unfortunately there have been a number of mistakes by me this season. Fortunately I am able to get over them easily. That's the way it has to be. It wouldn't help if I spent too much time thinking that I haven't been good enough this year."
He is actually putting a brave face on an experience which those close to him say has left him privately baffled. "He doesn't know what's caused this – that's the difficult part," says one who knows both Reina and Torres well. And though Torres is the one who wears his heart on his sleeve, Reina does not share all of the Torres mental fortitude which has left the striker convinced that he will find his way back to his best.
"You have to remember Torres was the Atletico Madrid captain at 21, chivvying and lobbying the manager and the chairman there," says the friend. "You are not in a position like that without being very strong." The sense that Reina may search his soul a little this summer is borne out by his refusal to take refuge in the prospect of a victory today. "The [mistakes] wouldn't be forgotten by me. If I am man of the match, that will not change anything."
That thought must apply to Liverpool's league campaign as well. Nothing can obscure how poor it has been and how far removed from Reina's talk of last November that "we have everything here to be champions some day and, hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later." Reina, who signed a six-year deal in April 2010, memorably declared 14 months back that "I'm not prepared to swear eternal love to any club – romance, eternal love exists in very few cases. And that's a reality you just have to accept." He publicly ruminated back then on how Edwin van der Sar was hanging up his gloves at Manchester United and how "people say Arsenal are looking ... I renewed my contract with Liverpool last year. But what a player wants, logically, is to challenge for titles."
Those thoughts are put away today, though. He has always trusted in the second coming of Kenny Dalglish – a referencia (icon), as he has described him – and his understanding of what Liverpool FC feels and represents, while his appreciation of the first-team coach, Steve Clarke, is deep. "If anyone said to me that we would be in the same league position [as last year – sixth] or maybe even a place lower, but you would win two [trophies] then I would take that," Reina says. Perhaps his own struggles will actually help Liverpool keep him. A commanding season might have provoked that itch for a title medal.
For now a trophy of a different shape will consume his thoughts, though. Reina's father, Manuel, did not cover himself in glory against Chelsea when, as a young Barcelona goalkeeper in April 1966, he pawed a speculative Peter Houseman shot into his own net to send their Fairs' Cup semi-final into a play-off, which the Catalans won. But Dalglish can look to Reina Jr as the man who, not least, has saved five of the nine penalties that have been on target in shoot-outs for Liverpool.
If Reina finds Torres bearing down on him in the final's closing stages, as Barcelona's Victor Valdes did in the Nou Camp 11 days ago, then only one of them can emerge with his fragile self-belief strengthened. Asked this winter what he would do if he found himself in a one-on-one with Torres, Reina replied: "Break his leg!" Nothing's changed. "I would try to stop him!" he says now. "He is a superb player and he's got everything – tricks, pace – and you have to be ready for everything."
Reina grins at that prospect and even allows himself to briefly imagine an open-top bus ride around Liverpool on Monday, him grabbing the mic for a reprise of the famous MC routine which he gave the football world when Spain won the European title in 2008. Then reality bites again and hauls him back. "Let's win it first and then we can talk about other things," he says. "We want to win and if I am needed to entertain, I will do it. But let's win it first."
Chelsea's road to Wembley
3rd round: beat Portsmouth (h) 4-0
4th: Queen's Park Rangers (a) 1-0
5th: B'ham (h) 1-1, replay (a) 2-0
6th: Leicester City (h) 5-2
Semi-final: Tottenham (n) 5-1
Liverpool's road to Wembley
3rd round: beat Oldham (h) 5-1
4th: Manchester United (h) 2-1
5th: Brighton & Hove Albion (h) 6-1
6th: Stoke City (h) 2-1
Semi-final: Everton (n) 2-1
Friends Reunited: Memorable recent cup clashes between Chelsea and Liverpool
* Today's Wembley meeting will remarkably be Chelsea's 16th cup meeting with Liverpool in a little over seven years, with the clubs having played out some momentous matches. The run started with Chelsea's 2005 League Cup final success, and the spoils have since been shared – five wins apiece, and five draws. We take a look at the more memorable meetings, the like of which would be welcome today.
27 Feb 2005 League Cup final: Liverpool 2 (Riise, Nunez) Chelsea 3 (Gerrard og, Drogba, Kezman) [after extra time]
José Mourinho was sent from the dugout as he picked up his first trophy in England. John Arne Riise scored early before Steven Gerrard headed into his own net. Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman swung the match Chelsea's way and Mourinho was off and running.
3 May 2005: Champions League semi-final second leg: Liverpool 1 (Garcia) Chelsea 0 [1-0 on agg]
The arguments are still going on as to whether Luis Garcia's fourth-minute shot crossed the line at Anfield before it was hooked away by Chelsea's William Gallas. Mourinho termed it the "ghost goal" but Liverpool profited and made a first European Cup final in 20 years – where they beat Milan.
14 April 2009: Champions League quarter-final second leg: Chelsea 4 (Drogba, Alex, Lampard 2) Liverpool 4 (Aurelio, Alonso pen, Lucas, Kuyt) [Chelsea win 7-5 on agg]
Yet another European clash generated an eight-goal thriller at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's first leg win proving decisive. Liverpool were two up by the break before the Blues stormed back in a hectic second period. James Mariner
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