Jose Reina: Cheered by Cup memories

At the time, the Liverpool keeper was convinced he'd played badly in last year's Cup final. But as he prepares to help his side defend their trophy tonight, Reina tells Andy Hunter he thinks he was being hard on himself
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Rarely can an FA Cup winner have looked as torn as Jose "Pepe" Reina when confronting the assembled press pack deep in the claustrophobic, concrete bowels of the Millennium Stadium last May.

In one hand lay his winners' medal and the performance that contributed most to Liverpool's seventh competition triumph with the exception of the man who lent his name to the "Gerrard Cup Final". In the other rested a wash bag and resentment at his part in two of the West Ham United goals on that exceptional afternoon. "I was absolute rubbish," the Spaniard summarised with barely concealed disdain. The toiletries had outweighed the silverware.

Time has softened the goalkeeper's self-critical analysis of what may be the last FA Cup final to be held in Cardiff. Eight months on, as Liverpool prepare to defend their trophy against Arsenal in the highlight of the third round today, it is the crucial save from Nigel Reo-Coker in the dying seconds of extra time, plus the prowess that stopped three penalties in the subsequent shoot-out, that shape the 24-year-old's recollections of the Principality's finest showpiece and not how he conceded to Dean Ashton and Paul Konchesky beforehand. No longer is Reina reluctant to watch the episode on DVD.

"I enjoy it a lot more now," he says of the 125th FA Cup final. "It's true that wasn't my best performance but now I think of the last save that took the final to a penalty shoot-out and the saves I made in the shoot-out. Now I am very proud of my performance and the fact it helped Liverpool to win the FA Cup."

Pride came after the fall in Reina's FA Cup story last year and those contrasting fortunes have returned to tell the tale of this entire season for the Spain international thus far.

Long before Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum reached out his investment arm and placed Dubai International Capital on the brink of control at England's most successful club, the question of whether Liverpool were in safe hands was asked of their goalkeeper as he succumbed to an irritable bout of second-season syndrome at Anfield. "A dog attracts all the parasites, you know, and for a while I felt as though I was the dog," explains Reina, making clear his irritation at the criticism that cracked his usually humorous demeanour at the start of this campaign.

The Madrileno's response has been equally compelling on the field, a string of performances that have lacked publicity but have been pivotal to the improvement of Rafael Benitez's team none the less. Critical interventions, as opposed to the spectacular, have enabled Reina to surpass the Anfield records of Ray Clemence, Bruce Grobbelaar and Jerzy Dudek for the most clean sheets in their first 50 League games for the club - the current custodian's total of 28 eclipsed the trio's shared tally by three - and Liverpool's recent rise to third in the Premiership has been underpinned by their keeper's return of 10 unbeaten displays in his last 11 games.

Prior to the arrival of Reina at the media suite inside Liverpool's Melwood training complex, Steven Gerrard, having his photograph taken in the room with yet another award for his indelible FA Cup efforts against West Ham, eulogises several of the saves that have prevented the opposition scoring at Anfield now for a staggering 754 minutes. Yet they were notable by their absence when pre-season talk of a first League title in 16 years at Liverpool fell silent with indecent haste and the man who had made an outstanding first impression following his £6m transfer from Villarreal became pilloried for several high-profile errors that, in his own words, drew the bloodsuckers.

"I spoke many times with the manager, the goalkeeping coach [Jose Ochotorena] and with my dad about the situation," Reina reveals. "With the support of the people who like me and know me, I knew I could recover my form. My confidence was fine, it is untouchable, but I needed to work on my form.

"You have to be a confident person to get between the posts, more so at a massive club like Liverpool, because you know that any mistake you make will result in a goal. The responsibility is great but, for me, this responsibility is a pleasure.

"With respect to other teams it is not the same to play away at Everton, Bolton, Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal, the toughest away games, so early on, as we did. Coming so quickly together they had a big effect on us, it was a heavy start and a bad start. I think we all suffered, the whole team, not just me.

"You could feel something was wrong but all I could do was keep working and keep my confidence high. I wasn't worried, I know what kind of keeper I am, but the problem was that people began to doubt me, although thankfully not my team-mates or the manager. That was key for me.

"The most important thing is that I recovered and I still think my second season can finish better than my first."

The recovery process is now well under way, although it may require a repeat of Liverpool's 2005 Champions' League triumph for Reina to improve on his debut season now that the title is seemingly out of reach. While Benitez's side are capable of sustaining the commanding form that yielded nine points from 12 over the festive period and have ticked off every problematic away trip for the season, their only route back into the championship race will be courtesy of an unprecedented collapse from Manchester United and Chelsea.

When Reina conceded as much following a heavy defeat at Arsenal in November he was instantly criticised by John Arne Riise for his negativity. Others would categorise the goalkeeper as a realist, even though he is not immune to the superstitions of his profession and always steps on to a pitch right foot first.

"It was our target to be the ones who were chasing Chelsea for the title this season," he admits. "I say was, because now it is almost impossible for us to catch Man U and that is very frustrating but we still believe that, very soon, we will have a good young team that challenges for the title.

"We knew it was going to be difficult to compete with Chelsea and Man U this season, even more so because they had more money to spend than us, but the target was to be closer to the top than we are now. We know that, but there are still many points to play for and we won't give up. We need to get as high as we can, and hopefully we can also win another FA Cup or Champions' League."

Cup success has sustained Liverpool in recent times and Anfield will be expectant this evening when Arsenal arrive for the first of two knock-out ties in four days (they meet in the re-arranged Carling Cup fifth round on Tuesday) and the start of an appetising home spell that includes Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United and the club who stand ominously in the path of Liverpool's latest continental journey, the European champions Barcelona.

"It is a tough draw but a fantastic draw," the keeper insists. "It is two big, passionate clubs and we are confident because we play better against European opponents than, say, Bolton away. Our style is to take a touch and play good football and it is easier to do that in Europe than in England."

Reina has long felt the lure of Barcelona. At 13 years of age he left the sanctuary of the family home in Madrid and the rich goalkeeping education on offer from his father, Miguel, to join the Catalans' youth academy. There he met a Basque youngster named Mikel Arteta, who remains one of his closest friends despite their residence on opposite sides of the Merseyside divide, made his Nou Camp debut aged 18, played on the losing side of the 2001 Uefa Cup semi-final against Liverpool, when he unusually failed to save a penalty as Gary McAllister drove Gérard Houllier's team on to Dortmund, and endured the hardest time of his professional career when Louis van Gaal took control and promptly relegated the youngster to the bench before swapping him for the Villarreal defender and last season's European Cup matchwinner, Juliano Belletti.

Not that the 24-year-old - still a fledgling in goalkeeping terms - harbours any regrets or animosity towards the Spanish giants (whose world-famous strip was based on the colours of a prominent Merseyside school, Merchant Taylors').

"Even if you are not playing so regularly, as happened to me, when you are at a big club like Barcelona it prepares you for everything that follows," insists Reina. "I played almost 50 times for Barcelona and that was a great experience but even when I was out of the team I was learning all the time.

"I left Madrid to go to Barcelona when I was very young and that has helped me a lot in future years. That has probably been the key for me remaining strong no matter what happens in my career, and it helped me in the difficult times this season. I lived alone when I was young and started to fight for my future from a very early age and that has helped me get back to the good times whenever the bad ones happen."

Miguel Reina spent 17 seasons as a goalkeeper at Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and so it was pre-ordained that his son Pepe - he prefers his childhood name to Jose - would follow in his father's gloves. The Spanish institution Andoni Zubizarreta may have provided the young Liverpool goalkeeper with an idol, as he was to all young hopefuls during eight successful years at Barcelona, but there is no doubt as to where his true inspiration lies.

"I didn't see my dad play, only on video unfortunately, but I was always proud that he was a professional goalkeeper and I always wanted to be like him. He is the reason I became a goalkeeper. The target is now done and we are both very happy with that," says Reina.

"He taught me so much at the beginning. Every lad wants to run around and score the goals when they are young - the goalkeepers are usually the ones who don't enjoy football! - but as soon as I showed physically that I could make it as a goalie [he says with the hint of a Scouse accent] my dad encouraged me to play there and, now, here I am."

But for how long? All season Liverpool have had to contend with speculation linking their No 1 with a return to Spain and Valencia, who may have just granted Santiago Canizares a new two-year contract but remain understandably keen to find a replacement now that the veteran blond of the Mestalla has turned 37.

The sight of David Villa in the Anfield directors' box on New Year's Day fuelled rumours that Reina could be used in part exchange to land the prolific Valencia forward, and, although Villa was merely a guest of friend and former team-mate Fabio Aurelio, the lack of progress on a new contract for the Anfield goalkeeper has done nothing to dispel the gossip.

"The truth is I am quite comfortable here," declares Reina. "I have two years left on my contract and I think we will sit down and talk about a new contract in the summer. Now is not the best time to speak about a new deal. There is plenty of time for that. I would be very happy to stay, although in this game you never know what might happen. I'm happy at Liverpool, my wife is happy here.

"It is not the time to discuss new contracts because I have to focus on the team, on improving our season and I don't want any distractions from that for me or the rest of the lads."

Nor does Reina appear to suffer from the homesickness that contributed to the swift departure from Anfield of his compatriots Fernando Morientes and Josemi. "I have a house in Cordoba and it is quite different to Liverpool," he reveals with mammoth understatement. "But I am not homesick for Spain. I miss it, it is my home, but I am happy here.

"The most important thing for a sportsman is to be professional and if you are happy with how you play and where you play than that is enough. Your life outside the stadium or the training ground is the same wherever you play, so all I need is a good house and people who love me like my wife, who is expecting our first child, a baby girl, next year."

But first Arsenal, and the task of conceiving success in the FA Cup, the Carling Cup or both over a four-day period that will determine the domestic fortunes of both Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benitez this season.

"They are very important games in our season," says Reina. "And though we want to win both there is no doubt that Saturday's is the most important."

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