By Graham Hunter in Villarreal
Sometimes in football, statistics tell you even more than words can, and notwithstanding the fact that Villarreal CF goalkeeper José Reina is an articulate and interesting conversationalist, his is a case in point.
Experience and maturity
The former FC Barcelona player is still only 21 yet shows the experience and maturity which stem from having played eleven UEFA Champions League games, 16 UEFA Cup matches and 14 UEFA Intertoto Cup ties. And this season, while his club have performed strongly in the Primera División and marched all the way from the Intertoto Cup to the UEFA Cup semi-final, Reina has become Spain's most remarkable penalty stopper.
Slightly superstitious about "over-examining" his talent, Reina nevertheless knows that his record of having saved five out of eight spot-kicks this season could be one way in which Villarreal may, eventually, get the better of Valencia CF in the last four. The sides are sufficiently well matched that a penalty during either game or even a penalty shoot-out could become the determining factor.
Like many goalkeepers, there is a mixture of technique, prayer and superstition behind Reina's approach to the art of penalty stopping – particularly having saved not one of the ten that he faced in the previous three seasons. "Each week I go to the fountain outside the San Pascual Baylón church near my home, I fill up a bottle of water and I drink it – things have started to go well since then!" said the player who is now an outside candidate for Spain's UEFA EURO 2004™ squad.
'I'm doing OK on the bets'
"However, to add to that, we do practise penalty stopping after most training sessions. The coach, myself and the other keeper, Javier López Vallejo, make little bets to see who will save the most. It'll be a bet for a beer or some tapas, but sometimes it'll extend to a bet for lunch – and I'm doing OK on the bets at the moment!"
The truth is that for a young man who suffered the disappointment of being offloaded by Barcelona - despite being one of their most reliable keepers over the past few seasons - Reina is aware that a footballer's life is never easy, and always more rewarding if the hard work is taken seriously.
'You look for luck'
"As a keeper you put in the training, you look for luck when you can find it and, in the case of penalties, you just don't stop them if they are hit well. In fact, if a penalty is well struck it's impossible to stop and my luck has come from being able to guess where all eight of the penalties against us this season were going to be hit. Yet to make my point, there were three I still couldn't get to."
'We've already won a prize'
For Villarreal to savour is the fact that in all but one of the matches where Reina has saved a penalty, his team have gone on to win. "This is a difficult semi-final but we have already won a prize by getting this far, because no one outside our club, and few within it, expected us to get this far," he added.
The good thing is that there is no pressure on us, we have nothing to lose. But we will not give any quarter to Valencia. This team has played plenty of difficult ties against big-name teams and still succeeded – just ask [AS] Roma, Galatasaray [SK] and Celtic [FC].
"The idea of winning a trophy with Villarreal would be sweeter than doing so with Barcelona, because there it is simply expected of you, but here you 'don't win trophies'. The expectation at Villarreal is to work hard at your game, push for a UEFA Cup place each season and that's it – but the expectation from this squad, the coach and the people inside the club is for much more."
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