After picking up a slight hamstring strain during warm-up while on duty with Spain over the international break, Pepe Reina feels he is close to returning to full fitness and is targeting Sunday's trip across Stanley Park to face Everton for his return.
"I'm getting better, little by little," Reina said, further suggesting that he even might have been able to play against Reading had it been a cup or title deciding match but that under the circumstances caution seemed the best course of action. "It wasn't worth taking any risks because you risk it getting worse. I'll be patient and get [the hamstring] really good."
Luckily for Liverpool, Reina's absence on the weekend was hardly missed. Even after the past few seasons have seen the Spanish keeper struggle for consistent form, and even if so far this year under Brendan Rodgers he's only managed to save one of every two goalbound efforts, it's difficult to imagine that he won't be straight back into action in the league when he's ready—and that at least when he's at his best that he gives the club its best chance at success.
Still, with Reina sat in the stands on Saturday when Reading came to town, backup 'keeper Brad Jones put in perhaps the best performance between the sticks so far this season for Liverpool. It will take more than just one good game for Jones to push his way into the starting conversation, but the quality of his performance wasn't lost on the injured Reina.
"Brad was excellent. He was composed, he was really good in the air, when he was called on he was fast off his line, and he played well with his feet. He had a complete game. He's a good fighter and a good 'keeper for Liverpool, not just an understudy, and he'll do his best to play as many games as possible."
Meanwhile, though Reina is hoping to be ready in time for Everton, between now and Sunday there's still the matter of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League for the club to worry about, and the Russian Premier League leaders under manager Guus Hiddink will pose a stern test for any Liverpool side Brendan Rodgers cares to run out on Thursday. And one of those who is nearly guaranteed a starting role against them is Jones, who will have the chance to impress against a far tougher opponent than the ones he shut down on the weekend.
"From the day [Rodgers] came in it’s been a fight to prove to him I’m worthy of being here," said Jones of his role at the club and his chance to impress in Reina's absence. "I’m hoping that I’m winning that battle. If I can get more games then all the better, but we’ve got another game on Thursday and I’m just focusing on that.
"We'll see how that goes. If I can keep playing after that I’ll be delighted. You have to fight to get games under your belt and I’m someone who likes a challenge. That’s the reason I came here—to set the bar high and see how far I can get in the game."
It might still seem a bit of a stretch to think of Jones challenging Reina for the starting role, but a man of the match calibre performance on Thursday could go a long way towards at least pushing his name into the conversation. And at the very least it would allow the medical staff and manager to ensure Reina is fully fit before returning him to action and, when he does, would provide more competition for the Spanish international than he has so far seen in his time at the club.