London – Pepe Reina is resigned to the fact he will never pull on the Liverpool shirt again and a trace of bitterness lingers about the nature of his exit from Anfield but the popular goalkeeper is thriving again in Italy.
Reunited with Rafa Benitez, Reina has been key in their impressive start to the campaign and last weekend became the first goalkeeper to ever save a Mario Balotelli penalty as Napoli won in the San Siro for the first time in 27 years.
It has helped convince Reina that some good may come from the ignominy of being forced out of Liverpool while on holiday and despite finishing last season with seven clean sheets in 10 Barclays Premier League games.
“It did come as a surprise,” said Reina, who has three years left on his Anfield deal. “It was the club (Liverpool) who made the move. I was on my holidays and nobody told me anything. Suddenly Napoli called and said they were agreeing terms with Liverpool and Liverpool just rang me two days later and said the same. They probably had their own reasons.”
It all happened quickly and the 31-year-old signed on loan for one season. Benitez will work on him to make it permanent, but accepts there will be competition, possibly from Barcelona, who expect Victor Valdes to leave when his contract expires next year.
Reina is unsure what will unfold but he cannot see a return to Merseyside. “No,” he said, shaking his head.”At the moment it’s difficult to think about being a Liverpool player next year. They have a young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and the manager prefers him to me.
“That’s the reason why I’m here and he will be at the club next year as well. There’s no reason to think I’ll be a Liverpool player from now on but we’ll see where the future takes us. It’s been a good move so far and I don’t regret what happened. I would have preferred to say goodbye in a different way.”
Oddly, the loan move came six months after Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers assured him he was No 1.
“His best years are in front of him, not behind him,” said Rodgers, in December.
“He is working harder than ever, he has lost weight, he looks fresh, he looks bright, he is doing extra work and it is a great step forward to him and his commitment in terms of him staying at Liverpool.”
On Wednesday, at Napoli’s Castel Volturno training base, he was recovering from a training run in the Mediterranean sun, the morning after a 1-1 draw at home to Sassoulo.
“I want to enjoy this year,” said Reina. “It is such an important one for me with the World Cup around the corner and returning to the top flight, playing in the Champions League and fighting for the title, is something I have missed in the last two or three years. I’m happy to be back at this level. I never expected it but it’s been a great decision. I feel invigorated by the move.
“Mentally, I’m fresher, I have more hunger. It is not like before I wasn’t, but a change can be good for your mind. You have to show the people even more and you have to be ready. The tactics and the managerial skills of Rafa are getting the best from me and that’s one more reason.”
Napoli fans have embraced the Spanish goalkeeper and there is tangible excitement in the city that this may be a special year as they target their first Serie A title since 1990 and the days when Diego Maradona ruled the Stadio San Paolo.
“It’s been a magnificent welcome,” said Reina. “It’s been brilliant. My family have adapted well to Napoli. The kids in the school are happy and my wife is making some friends. It is very similar to Liverpool.
“It is a humble city and very, very passionate about the team. It is almost a religion, like in Liverpool. That’s always brilliant for the players. It is a positive pressure. It is a healthy club, that’s for sure.
“Along with Borussia Dortmund it is probably the healthiest club in Europe. The squad is being built little by little with room to improve but it is going the right way and everything is good.”
His brilliant save from Balotelli (his first miss in 27 penalties) preserved a 2-1 win at AC Milan and is evidence of his positive mood.
“Just lucky it wasn’t right in the corner,” smiled Reina, but he has a knack. He saved seven out of nine conceded by Villarreal in the season before his move to Liverpool.
“It goes in waves,” he added. “There was a time at Liverpool for about two years when I couldn’t even smell it. When you’re on fire you’re on fire and when you’re not you’re not. If there’s a secret, I’ll keep it to myself.”
Reina will be in London next week when Napoli take on Arsenal, another club linked with him in the past.”That happened in 2010,” he said. “Since then, nothing has been going on, no direct contact with me or my agent.
“He has given the opportunity to Szczesny and Fabianski to prove themselves once again. I have a lot of respect for that club and they have great goalkeepers right now. All I can say is that it happened once and never again.
“But it is a great feeling to be going back to England to play at Champions League level.
“It is the famous group of death but we have started with a win. Arsenal are a really tough opponent at home but we have a little bit of confidence.” – Daily Mail