Romance, Reality, and Pepe Reina

Laurence Griffiths

Liverpool's number one has been a mainstay since arriving prior to the 2005-2006 season, but his gradual dip in form has caused many to question just how much longer that should be the case. And that was before Sunday.

This is not going to be any sort of numbers piece--folks have been passing around an OptaJoe tweet from yesterday citing the number of errors (8) Pepe Reina has made since the start of last season that have led to a goal, and Bass Tuned to Red has a graph from last summer tracking the steep decline in performances since the goalkeeper arrived at Liverpool. Those should be enough for now, I suppose, and even if it isn't, I'm not particularly fond of numbers and/or using them for anything. Ever.

I'm instead feeling wistful for the version I've conjured of Pepe Reina in my head and heart, he of saving penalties at the Millenium Stadium and sprinting the length of the pitch to celebrate David Ngog's goal against Manchester United at Anfield and standing in the fog on a Europa League night in Prague. That Pepe Reina makes reflex saves and keeps Liverpool in matches and leads from the back, and while he's prone to the occasional lapse in judgment or nervy moment, he's in the running to captain Liverpool once Steven Gerrard's not around any more. Jumping, leaping, screaming, clapping, he's a joy to watch.

Problem is, I'm not sure if that Pepe Reina exists anymore, in sentiment or reality.

That's not to say it's time to eulogize him, of course--much has been made of the demands of a new system on a goalkeeper to become a sweeper-keeper, and after a rocky few seasons at the club, there's an argument to be made that he's actually improved relative to some of the mistakes and errors we've lamented this season and last. His first-half display against Arsenal was vintage stuff, an indication that there's still something to be said for the impact he can have in goal for Liverpool, and all signs point to him being willing to work to regain the form that saw him earn the Golden Gloves during his first three seasons at the club.

But between performances that sabotage any growing positive sentiment--the second half at Arsenal, yesterday's kamikaze run to the flank that allowed Sergio Aguero to curl in a difficult shot from an even more difficult angle--and talk earlier in the season about a potential move to Barcelona in the summer, it seems as though the pendulum's swung from PEPE! to just plain old Jose Manuel Reina, goalkeeper of questionable quality and impact, and someone Liverpool might just be better off without.

I don't know that I'm ready for that place just yet, even as young and exotic names pop up as potential replacements. They're newer, shinier, probably better, and, depending on your preference, might just have names cooler than Pepe. They're a better fit as sweeper-keeper, more agile, on better form in better leagues and aren't linked with moves away from Anfield. To be fair, though, that's because none of them are at Anfield, and have been linked with moves elsewhere. Or have signed with Stoke.

So what does Liverpool do? Probably replace him at some point, whether it's this summer or somewhere further on the horizon, and few can blame them from a practical standpoint if they do. I find myself resisting that reality, even as I acknowledge the inescapable fact that he just hasn't been very good, or at least not as good as I remember him. Maybe wanting him to come good again is tied up more in sentiment than it is reality, and that's probably a naive way to approach a game that routinely punishes sentiment.

Pepe Reina's got some ground to make up, and the final months of the season might not end up having any bearing on his immediate or longer-term future. But it'd be awfully nice to see the Pepe Reina we remember on a more consistent basis, both for the romance and the reality.

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