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For a man who is a creature of habit and exceptionally superstitious, the demolished petrol station on the road to Anfield will be troubling Pepe Reina.
Liverpool’s goalkeeper follows a bizarre pre-match routine that involves him stopping at the same garage before every home game, regardless of whether he needs one litre or a couple of gallons, to ensure his tank is full to the brim.
This summer, though, the forecourt that has been as vital psychologically to Reina’s preparations as any warm-up drill has disappeared. Sadly for the Spaniard, so has his form. Mistakes against Hearts and Arsenal have highlighted the problem, but he would be the first to recognise that standards have slipped in the last two years.
Given Reina’s iconic standing among Liverpool supporters and the outstanding reputation he holds within the game, that appraisal may seem harsh but just consider this self-assessment he gave during an interview with Sportsmail in December 2010.
‘I’m not happy at all,’ he said. ‘I can be better in many ways. I’m disappointed because you always want to be really consistent and helping the team. I want to improve.’
Managers have changed since then but were you to ask him for a synopsis of how he has started this campaign, the answer would be the same. As much as Liverpool need to beat Manchester United tomorrow, Reina needs a big performance in a big game.
Only a couple of years ago Reina, whom Rafa Benitez signed from Villarreal for £6.5million in 2005, smashed a club record for keeping 100 clean sheets in less than 200 appearances and crowned his first three campaigns by winning the Golden Gloves. So what has gone amiss? There are a number of theories.
The first is that there is a lack of competition for a starting place as Reina’s deputies Brad Jones and Peter Gulacsi are not up to playing regularly in the top flight. Secondly, there is a perception that he has become frustrated by Liverpool’s inability to compete.
Perhaps the most significant point, though, centres on the coaching he is receiving. Reina had a close bond with Jose Ochotorena when he first arrived and the rapport continued with Xavi Valero.
Since then he has worked with Mike Kelly — Roy Hodgson’s long-time ally — and, currently, the former Tranmere keeper John Achterberg. Many wonder whether the changes are impacting on Reina.
There have been stories that the 30-year-old, will be moved on but he has no desire to leave. Just as importantly, Brendan Rodgers wants him to stay.
‘I’ve never had a problem with Pepe,’ said Rodgers. ‘He’s a key member of the squad.’ But until he recaptures his top form, questions will keep being asked. What better place to start answering them than in the biggest game of all. – Daily Mail