Liverpool's goalkeeper says he is focused on thwarting the rehabilitation of Chelsea's £50m investment in the FA Cup final
It is 16 months since José Reina's next-door neighbour moved to London but there is no prospect of the pair losing touch. They still speak regularly, as close friends who have travelled a similar path do, and have confided in each other throughout the hardest periods of their professional lives in England. So when the Liverpool goalkeeper voices concerns, Roman Abramovich should listen. It is his £50m investment, and Reina's former neighbour, who is the focus of them after all.
This season has been the poorest of Reina's seven in the Premier League but as he heads into today's FA Cup final and the prospect of a domestic cup double and redemption against Chelsea it is without the condemnation, at times ridicule, that has accompanied Fernando Torres to Wembley. For that, Reina credits the backing of his Liverpool team-mates and manager Kenny Dalglish. He doubts whether a support network ever existed for Britain's most expensive footballer until the third manager of Torres's Chelsea career, Roberto Di Matteo, began to demonstrate faith.
"The difference between Fernando and myself is that I have had the confidence of the people at my club all the time. I don't think that has been the case for Fernando at Chelsea," explains Reina. "It is much easier to get over your mistakes when you know you have the confidence of your manager and your team-mates. With [André] Villas-Boas especially, I don't think Fernando felt that confidence."
Ominously for Liverpool, and that applies whether their former striker starts on the pitch or on the bench this evening, they have started to recognise Torres once more. The late goal in Barcelona that secured Chelsea's place in the Champions League final preceded the first hat-trick of the Spaniard's spell in blue five days later against Queens Park Rangers. Whatever the implications for the FA Cup final, Reina is simply pleased for a friend. Arguably for his own counselling skills too.
"I'm happy for him because he has been showing great form lately and has been more involved in their games," he says. "Physically he looks sharper. I'm glad. It's good for the national team and good for him. Maybe not so good for us on Saturday but I wish him to be at that level all the time.
"We are friends and we speak regularly. I told him [while Torres was struggling] that he was going to be back. People, and the press in this country especially, were killing him but he has been carrying that weight all his life. He was captain of Atlético Madrid when he was 19 and that gave him a lot of experience. We knew Fernando at Liverpool, we know Fernando, and Fernando is a great player. He will always be a great player."
But a stellar talent should adapt to new surroundings quicker than Torres at Chelsea. Reina counters that the established order at Stamford Bridge has also been a factor in the striker's problems and is bemused at why Chelsea, having spent a British record sum to entice the 28-year-old from his disillusionment at Anfield, have not developed a team around him.
"When you move there is always a question mark," he explains. "We knew how good he was here but he needed to change city, team-mates and the mentality of the team. That is a hell of a change. He had to get used to that but also keep delivering and the expectations when a team has spent £50m on a player are also very high. The pressure was there but I don't think it was only down to Fernando. I don't think Chelsea as a club delivered for him.
"We built a team for Fernando here at Liverpool. Along with Stevie [Gerrard], Fernando was our star player. We had no problems admitting that. He deserved that and he earned that credit. I'm not sure it's like that at Chelsea. Fernando has always performed at his best when he has been at the heart of the team. I'm not saying Chelsea have to do that because Fernando can perform for any club in the world, but it is easier when you have that situation."
Reina's concerns this season extend beyond Torres's predicament. There has been an aura around the Liverpool goalkeeper since he arrived from Villarreal for £6m in 2005, a consistently high class presence that helped deliver the club's last FA Cup in the 2006 penalty shoot-out against West Ham United. That has slipped this term. Glaring errors such as allowing Sergio Agüero's shot to pass under his body at Manchester City in January remain the exception but the number of crucial, match-defining saves has waned.
Asked to rate his own performances, he states: "Bad." He adds: "I don't think my season has been good at all. It has been below my standards but I am working hard and trying to improve on a daily basis. I know I haven't been great this season but first of all I want to help the team in the final on Saturday and then get back to my best next season."
Managerial upheaval at Liverpool has brought with it four different goalkeeping coaches over the past three seasons. Reina does not seek excuses. "They have all been great," he insists. "I have no problem with any goalkeeping coach. That is not the issue. It is all about my own form and the way I play. You cannot be at the top of your game all the time, although you try. You have ups and downs and certainly we as a team haven't been as consistent as we should have been. I don't know. I had six really good years before this one and people got used to that level from me but sometimes you have a dip in form and you have to accept that."
Not even a repeat of his defining contribution to Liverpool's last FA Cup triumph would improve Reina's self-assessment of a campaign divided between cup success and league failure. "Unfortunately there have been a number of mistakes by me this season," he says. "Fortunately I am able to get over them easily. That's the way it has to be. You have to be strong and prepare properly. But they won't be forgotten by me. If I am man of the match on Saturday that will not change anything. It is a one-off game, a final and I will try to help my team-mates and it is up to all of us to deliver. But if I play badly and the team wins, I would take that all day long."
A homecoming parade is planned for Sunday should Dalglish's team add the FA Cup to the Carling Cup and Reina, the all-singing cheerleader of Spain's triumphant returns from the 2010 World Cup and 2008 European Championship, would finally have the opportunity to showcase his dubious talents on Merseyside. "Let's win it first and then we can talk about other things," pleads Reina, who admits feeling a debt of gratitude to Brad Jones for helping Liverpool defeat Everton in the semi-final while he completed a three-match suspension. "We want to win and if I am needed, I will do it. But let's win it first."
For now Reina's thoughts are focused on Chelsea and thwarting the rehabilitation of Torres if necessary. He would not hesitate if, like Víctor Valdés in the Camp Nou last week, he is confronted by his compatriot in the dying seconds of a showpiece event.
"I would try to stop him," he smiles. "Fernando is a superb player and he's got everything – tricks, pace – and you have to be ready for everything, although I am sure my defenders would not let that situation happen."
Reina is prepared for all eventualities, including having Torres for a neighbour once again. In Liverpool of course. "I would like to play with Fernando every day of my life," says the Liverpool No1. "We are close friends. Our families are close. We shared a lot of things in those three years and we know each other very well.
"He will be a friend forever. He was very grateful to Liverpool and to the Liverpool supporters. I have spoken to many former players and when they took the decision to leave Liverpool, most of them have ended up regretting it. Obviously when Fernando was struggling he probably missed Liverpool. I'm not saying he made a good or a bad decision, it's up to him, but he was an icon and an idol here."