Despite the fact Pepe Reina has not played a match for Liverpool in more than 12 months, the news he will be leaving the club to join Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, is still a bitter pill to swallow for many Kopites.
The 31-year-old goalkeeper saw his form dip during his final two seasons at Anfield, with individual errors creeping into his game, and public flirtations with Barcelona a common occurrence.
But despite this, Reina should still be fondly remembered for his time at Liverpool – and perhaps there are regrets amongst supporters he is not back between the sticks for the 2014-15 season as the number one.
Simon Mignolet has the backing of Brendan Rodgers, and enjoyed a decent first season at Anfield. But conceding 50 Premier League goals would have been unheard of in Reina’s day, and the Belgian was not exempt from the sort of individual errors that blighted Reina’s last two years in England.
Signed by Rafael Benitez in the summer of 2005, Reina quickly went about establishing himself as one of the finest goalkeepers in Europe.
The goalkeeping position had been a conundrum for Liverpool before the Spaniard’s arrival, with David James, Sander Westerveld, Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland all unconvincing during the Premier League era.
The fact Reina ended his first season as a Liverpool goalkeeper with the Golden Glove award, a club record for consecutive clean sheets (11), and an FA Cup final winners medal having saved three penalties in the deciding shoot-out, was a sign of the quality to come.
If his first season wasn’t enough to entirely convince Reds supporters, the 2006-07 campaign should have been. Reina was instrumental as Rafa’s Reds reached the Champions League final for the second time in three seasons.
And it was Reina’s repeat of his penalty heroics against West Ham in Cardiff that saw them book their place in Athens, breaking Jose Mourinho and Chelsea supporters hearts with dramatic spot kick saves from Arjen Robben and Geremi.
Whilst the 2006-07 season didn’t end with Champions League glory, Reina picked up a personal accolade for the second consecutive season, with another Golden Glove award for the most clean sheets in the country – as he did again the following season. Reina remained the undisputed number one for the duration of Benitez’s reign as Liverpool manager, and was a key member of the squad that came so agonisingly close to a first Premier League title during the 2008-09 season.
Benitez left Anfield in the summer of 2010, and Reina had left an unforgettable impression on his Spanish boss – a reason the pair would be reunited later down the line.
Benitez had described Reina as the ‘best goalkeeper in Spain’ following his arrival in 2005, and the statistics produced by Reina during Rafa’s reign backed that statement up, with a staggering 94 clean sheets in 182 Premier League games during the Benitez era.
Reina was not just considered an integral part of Rafa’s team for so many years because of his shot-stopping, but also his superb distribution, and his ability to play as a ‘sweeper-keeper.’
Manuel Neuer – the man Reina is now set to act as understudy to at Bayern Munich- caught everyone’s attention with his performances in that ‘sweeper keeper’ role during the World Cup – something pundits seem to find almost as enchanting and ingenious as the vanishing spray introduced in Brazil.
When in fact, Neuer’s habit of playing as a sweeper was something Reina had introduced to Liverpool following his arrival back in 2005.
The Spaniard was so good with his feet and had so much accuracy with his passing, that Benitez encouraged him to play as that last line of defence – you could even argue Reina was the first to introduce this method of modern goalkeeping to the Premier League.
A goalkeeper with the ability to play this role has to have two main attributes in abundance – skill, and confidence – of which Reina had both.
So good was he with his feet, he even played the second half of a pre-season friendly in midfield for the Reds when Benitez was short of numbers.
Germany coach Joachim Lowe said Manuel Neuer would be good enough to play out on pitch for the German national team – and whilst that may be a slight exaggeration – Reina is a keeper in a similar mould.
How many goalkeepers do you see provide assists that are actually meant? Memories of his pass to Albert Reira in the 5-0 win over Aston Villa in 2009, and his quick thinking to set up a counter attack which led to Robbie Keane netting a rare Liverpool goal the same year are two that instantly come to mind.
And in terms of confidence, there were few with more than Reina. Individual mistakes are part and parcel of being a goalkeeper, and Reina was not exempt during his best spell as Liverpool goalkeeper. But his huge personality ensured individual errors wouldn’t bring him down – think back to that 2006 final with West Ham, where he bounced back from two mistakes to produce a match winning save in extra time, and the heroics in the penalty shootout.
Reina’s character and passion for the club is what he will perhaps be most fondly remembered for. He was awarded the player of the season during the 2009-10 season, as the Reds struggled for form in what proved to be Benitez’s final campaign as Reds boss.
Whilst others hid, Reina led the way with some inspiring performances.
His reaction to David Ngog’s goal in the 2-0 win over Manchester United that season, when he ran the entire length of the pitch to celebrate with the French striker, summed up how much Liverpool meant to him. His personality inspired those around him, through good and bad times.
Reina’s ability to crack a joke and a smile saw him as one of the most popular figures in the Liverpool dressing room, and you could argue his presence and leadership has been missed since – certainly by the defenders.
The departure of Benitez that summer seemed to rattle Reina somewhat. Individual errors under Hodgson and Dalglish followed on a more consistent basis, although the Spaniard remained a leader alongside Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard as the club went through a period of transition.
Reina picked up the second medal of his Liverpool career in 2012, as the Reds came out on top in a penalty shootout once more – this time against Cardiff in the final of the League Cup.
However, the following 2012-13 season seemed to convince new boss Brendan Rodgers that Reina was not the man for the long term, with individual errors and shaky performances on the rise.
Early season form proved a major issue, with errors against Manchester City, Arsenal, Hearts in the Europa League, and Norwich City becoming a real cause for concern.
Strangely, it seemed to be Reina’s footwork and distribution in a new system designed for passing football that seemed to be the biggest problem.
Fitness was also an issue for Reina that season, and Brad Jones found himself deputising on 15 occasions over the course of Rodgers first campaign in charge.
Those who suggest Reina’s form had dipped as he believed he had a move to Barcelona in the pipeline may have a point, and a change of scene seemed best for all involved last summer.
Simon Mignolet has all the attributes to be top goalkeeper for many years to come, and no doubt everyone at the club will get behind him once Reina’s permanent departure is confirmed.
But the Belgian does not have an easy task to follow, as Reina has undoubtably been Liverpool’s best goalkeeper of the Premier League and Champions League era’s.
Reina was the man in goal for famous wins over Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Arsenal, and Real Madrid on the European stage, whilst his place in goal behind a defence led by club legend Jamie Carragher saw records broken on the domestic stage.
A dip in form and flirtations with those who declare themselves ‘more than a club’ aside, Pepe Reina did enough over almost a decade at Anfield to be remembered as a Liverpool legend.
It just remains a pity that last season’s loan spell robbed him of the chance of a testimonial, and the chance for a proper goodbye that would have been so well deserved.
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