From loan ranger to dazzling wide boy

Albert Riera did well at Eastlands but City couldn't afford him. He's back today with Liverpool and the hosts may pay the price. By Steve Tongue
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The Independent Football

Many are the foreign players who appear in English football for a short spell, only to disappear again, often into obscurity. Rarer is one who makes a mark, leaves and then returns with another club. Albert Riera, expected to play for Liverpool away to his former club Manchester City this afternoon, is in that category.

He will, of course, find Eastlands much changed from the place he left in the summer of 2006 after a four-month loan from Espanyol. Had Middle Eastern money been available, the then manager Stuart Pearce would have had the option of signing the popular Riera on a permanent basis. Instead he was allowed to go back to Catalonia, with fond memories but no regrets.

"In football, things can happen," he said in his polite, careful English after helping Liverpool to their straightforward 3-1 Champions' League victory over PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday. "I was very happy when I was there [City] and tried to do my best but now I'm playing for Liverpool.

"This is my team and I'll try to do my best on Sunday. That's all I have in my mind. Maybe if I'd stayed at Manchester City, then I'm not here now, so you never know in football. I'm happy that I'm here in this club. There was a change of coach at Espanyol and I was happy to return again because that coach wanted me. It's in the past and in football you must think only in the present."

Riera's footballing past began under the controversial Luis Aragones at RCD Mallorca on the holiday island where he was born. Bordeaux were next, with a run to the Uefa Cup quarter-final, before a first, unsuccessful spell at Espanyol.

Pearce took him to Manchester in the January 2006 transfer window for a run of 19 games which produced a winning debut in the Manchester derby and his only goal, against Newcastle, but disappointingly few other win bonuses: City lost nine of their last 10 games in falling from eighth place to finish 15th.

With a potential fee of some £3m deterring the club, Riera returned to Espanyol, where his reputation soared in a season that culminated in a Uefa Cup final appearance against Juande Ramos's Seville. Riera scored but Seville won on penalties.

Aragones remembered him the following autumn, awarding him the first of five Spanish caps, although he missed out on Euro 2008 last summer and the chance to become a European champion with Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso. The presence of that pair at Anfield, with a Spanish manager in Rafa Benitez, was doubtless an incentive, not that any was needed, when Liverpool came calling towards the end of the last transfer window.

Thrown in at the deep end again with another debut at home to United, he excelled with clever feet, the ability to pick a pass or go past a defender on the outside and cross. His popularity was sealed by a 2-1 home victory and celebrated with a standing ovation when he was substituted.

Compared to his previous sojourn in the North-West, he says: "I am three years more experienced. I've played one [Uefa Cup] final and last year I was an international so I think it's normal that a player makes progress. I think I can progress more and this is the perfect team to do it with."

What he looks to have brought to that team is the genuine width that Yossi Benayoun, whom he has supplanted, never quite provided. It suits Benitez to play the hard-working Dirk Kuyt on the other flank, allowing Steven Gerrard the central role he craves whether or not Robbie Keane plays alongside Torres.

The relief of Keane's first goal against PSV was one of the bonuses from the midweek victory. Keane was relaxed about it, pointing out that his prolific partnership at Tottenham with Dimitar Berbatov took a while to form, and that the same applies to Torres, who supplied him with a magnificent cross for the goal.

Keane will still need a first score in the Premier League as soon as possible to fully remove the "monkey from his back" that he referred to in midweek and he may be denied the opportunity this afternoon, initially at least, for the temptation will surely be to bring back Javier Mascherano alongside Alonso, pushing Gerrard in between Kuyt and Riera in a 4-2-3-1 formation. On the other hand, all that rotation which was so much in vogue even a year or so ago is suddenly going out of fashion.

Luiz Felipe Scolari has in the main changed his Chelsea team only when injuries necessitate it, Arsène Wenger considered a radical shake-up after losing to Hull and then made a single change against Porto in midweek, and when Benitez did the same between the Mersey derby and the PSV game, one of his predecessors, Graeme Souness, said scathingly: "Maybe he's realised players don't get as tired as he thought they did."

City have had the disadvantage of a Thursday night Uefa Cup tie, albeit a comfortable one against Omonia Nicosia on their own ground, and may want to freshen the side.

Thanks to the frantic activity on the final day of the transfer deadline, Mark Hughes has broadened his options not only with Robinho but with the lesser known Argentinian right-back Pablo Zabaleta, a close friend and former Espanyol colleague of Riera, who says of him: "I'm looking forward to facing him. We're speaking every day and we are great friends. He plays right-back and I play left side so we will be facing each other all the time.

"He's a very good defender and very focused defender trying to give always 100 per cent but I will try to better him. Of course he will try to kick me, but I will try my best and now I have in my mind to score as well."

Goals on a regular basis is perhaps the one thing lacking in his game, and Liverpool would welcome them, especially since Wednesday night was the only time this season that they have exceeded two in one game. But his compatriot Benitez, fully aware of how long it can take a player to adjust – or in this case readjust – to football in a new country, will settle for the old-fashioned craft the 26-year-old has shown thus far.

"I am getting better every time," Riera says. "I know how this team is playing and I'm new so I must adapt to the team little by little and I think I'm making progress. It's normal to need some matches to adapt to my team-mates and I'm sure I can do better as well but I'm happy because the most important thing is the team and that we have three points again."

Today's matches

Chelsea (14pts) v Aston Villa (13)

Injury-stricken Chelsea succeeded where Villa had failed in confronting the culture shock of Stoke City. Pace down the middle against Alex and an ailing John Terry offers the improving visitors' their best hope.

Everton (7) v Newcastle United (4)

An odd situation for Everton manager David Moyes, who has a new five-year contract waiting to be signed but is described as being "under pressure" after exiting the Carling Cup and now the Uefa Cup. What can be better than a visit from Newcastle?

Manchester City (9) v Liverpool (14)

The 6-0 drubbing of Portsmouth has been the "new" City's only convincing performance. Producing another one here will depend to a large extent on how Robinho and Jo cope with a third game in eight days.

Portsmouth (9) v Stoke City (4)

Mutual admiration as Tony Pulis meets up with one of his old mentors Harry Redknapp, who may be apprehensive about confronting Stoke's vigour after a draining Uefa Cup tie in Portugal went to extra time on Thursday.

Tottenham Hotspur (2) v Hull City (11)

A nine-point gap between the teams was only to be expected at this stage – just not in Hull's favour. Triumphant at the Emirates a week ago, they return to north London understandably full of self-belief.

West Ham United (12) v Bolton Wanderers (4)

Without a win since the first day of the season, Bolton already look set for a hard grind to stave off relegation. Contrasting styles offer the prospect of a lively afternoon and a home win.

Steve Tongue