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The Spanish keeper feels victory in the Carling Cup final against Cardiff would prove the club are over their ‘dark moment’
Pepe Reina arrived at Liverpool between the club’s two Champions League finals, finding Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan a tad more resilient in Athens in 2007 than they had been in Istanbul a couple of years earlier, but consoling himself with an FA Cup winner’s medal at the end of his first season when West Ham were taken to penalties at Cardiff.
Kenny Dalglish was at the Millennium Stadium as a spectator and recalls the roasting heat and a save from Reina late into extra time that was probably as crucial as Steven Gerrard’s 91st-minute equaliser in denying the London side an open play victory. “It must have been disappointing for West Ham, but Liverpool were always favourite when it went to penalties,” the present manager recalls. “The Cardiff game was actually a bit like Istanbul. Pepe made a fantastic save right at the death in extra time, then Liverpool won on penalties, although we weren’t 3-0 down this time.”
If the goalkeeper imagined it would be the same most years at Liverpool â€“ medals, cup finals, comebacks and close shaves â€“ he was to be sadly disappointed. The 2007 Champions League final turned out to be the club’s last major occasion until Sunday’s Carling Cup final encounter with Cardiff at Wembley. New American owners came and went, Rafael BenÃtez eventually departed, and Reina himself was considering his position until the events of a year ago â€“ a change of ownership and of manager â€“ let some light into what he describes as a very dark situation.
“It was a dark moment in Liverpool’s history,” Reina says. “I thought I had joined one of the best clubs in the world, one of the biggest names around, and I had, though within a few years it became clear that I had arrived at one of the worst moments in Liverpool’s whole history. Footballers can cope with ups and downs, it is part of the job and you cannot expect everything to be wonderful the whole time, but this was not just the worst time for a decade or so, it was a real low point in the whole history of the club. Fortunately, new owners came along with better ideas and put a new project on the table. We all believe in it and I hope the supporters do too. Everyone knows what Kenny Dalglish means to Liverpool, he is probably the badge on the shirt. I think the supporters understood a bit of patience would be needed, but with luck we may now be in a position where we can start to deliver.”
Some may scoff that the Carling Cup is small beer for a club of Liverpool’s stature, especially when Sunday afternoon’s opponents are drawn from the Championship, but according to Reina that is to miss the point. Things are looking up at last, and a first visit to Wembley in 16 years â€“ even though that tiresome statistic overlooks two FA Cup finals, a Uefa Cup win, three League Cup finals and two visits to European football’s main event in the same period â€“ could be just the start.
“The Carling Cup may not be quite the same level as the FA Cup, but it is the first trophy of the season so you definitely want to be in it,” Reina explains. “We are still in the FA Cup, really close to getting to another final, and we have 13 important Premier League games still to play. This could be just the opportunity to get ourselves in a good mood and get a feel for the run-in.”
Reina has already played at Wembley this season, conceding the goal by which England rather surprisingly beat Spain last November, and admits to being pleasantly surprised at returning so soon. “Even a year ago we could not have dreamed of playing at Wembley,” he says. “The hope was always there but you could not honestly say we looked like a team that could challenge for a trophy or a title. But things have got better quite quickly and this is a trophy we can win, so happy days. We always hoped we could return in a positive way but also knew we needed better players to be competitive. The owners thought so too and they spent good money in the summer. As a result we have made some improvement.
“We are in the right way now. We want to be fighting for titles, fighting to reach Wembley. I think steps have been taken to try to get the club back to where it belongs and that is basically why I am here today. The same goes for many of my team-mates. We spoke to one another as players. We have always been Liverpool Football Club, and that counts for a lot.
“Even at the lowest point we knew Liverpool would be able to turn the corner one day and fight for titles again. We hoped it would just be a temporary period and we’re glad we were right. Such a big club as Liverpool, with the fan base, the supporters, the history, Anfield, the players â€“ it was time for us to fight again for an honour. And here we are.”
The goalkeeper is aware that not least among the Carling Cup’s attractions is a passage back into Europe for the winners. Only the Europa League, granted, but as far as Reina is concerned anything is better than nothing. Both he and his manager believe Liverpool’s success in the domestic cups this season has been at least partly due to being able to field full-strength sides all the time, but a player who grew up supporting Barcelona and feels his present club belongs in the same European echelon as BarÃ§a, Milan and Real Madrid freely confesses to feeling almost ashamed at getting so many midweek nights off.
“A club like Liverpool has to be involved in Europe, whether it is the Europa League or Champions League,” he says. “Hopefully it can be the Champions League, but whichever the competition it is just natural for Liverpool to be involved in Europe.
“We have to play midweek at this club and it has been like that for all my career here until this season. It has been painful and there has been a bit of jealousy of other teams but, looking at it positively, maybe we have done better in the other cups because of that. We had fewer competitions to go for this season because of the lack of European footie and maybe because of that we’ve made progress in the domestic cups. That may be one of the positives of not having European football, though I can’t think of many others.
“That’s why the game at Wembley is a massive fixture for us. We want to give our supporters a day out to enjoy. We want to get back to winning ways, and this could be a start. For the health of the club, securing fourth place would mean more than a title right now, but a trophy is a trophy all day long.”