Goal.com's countdown of the 50 best players of 2008-09 continues, and at No. 37 is Liverpool's Spanish shot-stopper, Pepe Reina...
The 2007-08 campaign ended with a third consecutive Golden Glove award for Jose Manuel 'Pepe' Reina, ensuring his status as one of Europe's finest goalkeepers. And although he just missed out on claiming the accolade four years running, he more than upheld his reputation in the season that followed.
It proved to be another trophyless term for Liverpool, but the progress made was there for all to see as Rafael Benitez's side pushed Manchester United to the wire in the Premier League race. Fresh off a European Championship win with Spain, Pepe was an integral part of not only his club side's typically solid defending, but also its play-building from the back.
The season began in typically shaky fashion for the Reds. After scraping through Champions League qualifying, they kicked off domestic affairs with nervous showings against Sunderland (1-0), Middlesbrough (2-1) and Aston Villa (0-0). A monumental victory against Man United at home seemed to have set them on the right path, but there were more hiccoughs to be had yet.
In truth, Reina's goal looked a little less secure than usual in the early stages, though not through any great fault of his own - aside from one memorably inadvisable pass-out to Daniel Agger during Wigan Athletic's visit to Anfield. Rather, it was an unstable and injury-struck defensive line that forced the 'keeper to work hard as 'Pool pulled off some miraculous escapes.
The former Villarreal man kept a clean sheet as his side ended Chelsea's record home unbeaten run in October, and as winter drew near, the Merseysiders hit something approaching their best form. Reina continued to demonstrate his all-round contribution to the team - such as in the 3-0 win over Bolton Wanderers in December, when his midfield-splitting release allowed Xabi Alonso to set-up one of Robbie Keane's two second-half goals.
Liverpool entered 2009 clear atop the Premier League standings; however, in all-too-familiar fashion, their form soon tapered as they struggled to break down the likes of Stoke City, Wigan and Middlesbrough - the latter dealing them just their second league loss, in February.
Safe Hands | Pepe in practice with La Furia Roja
Meanwhile, though, Rafa's Reds were tearing it up in Europe. In one (well, two) of the more impressive team displays of the Champions League campaign, they claimed a mammoth 5-0 aggregate win over Real Madrid in the knockout phase. As a Barcelona product whose father played for Atletico Madrid, it's safe to say that Pepe would have been pretty chuffed at shutting out the Merengues across two legs.
A costly fumble on a tame Didier Drogba cross/shot at Stamford Bridge would play a big part in his side's exit in the CL semis, but Reina's form was otherwise sound as Liverpool stormed back into league contention. He conceded just seven goals in the last 10 games - which included Andriy Arshavin's four-goal heroics at Anfield - but it wasn't quite enough to prevent Man United from claiming their third straight Premier League crown.
Pepe finished the season with 20 clean sheets, equalling his best-ever tally since joining the club in 2005, although Edwin van der Sar would snatch the Golden Glove. Nevertheless, as one of the few Spaniards at Anfield whose future hasn't come into question this summer, Pepe Reina's place as one of the 'untouchables' in Benitez's squad is assured heading into the 2009-10 campaign.
Mike Maguire, Goal.com