Sunday 25 September 2016

Reina finds home as unlikely hero of Napoli title charge

Ian Hawkey

Published 18/01/2016 | 02:30

Pepe Reina played his 50th Serie A match on Saturday
Pepe Reina played his 50th Serie A match on Saturday

What makes a typical Neapolitan? I once put the question to probably the most celebrated footballer from Naples of the last 30 years. Fabio Cannavaro gave two answers.

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"What we have is 'allegria' - a happy outlook on life, we smile a lot," Cannavaro replied.

He always felt like a "typical Napolitano," he added, though, as the captain of the last Italy team to win the World Cup, he knew he was an "unusually privileged" son of the city.

There was, he acknowledged, another view, the jaundiced one from elsewhere, particularly the north of Italy, a stereotype every native Neapolitan encounters from time to time.

"Their idea of Naples is of chaos, of a dirty city, where nothing really works. And they think a Neapolitan will be out to trick them."

Some time soon, Naples may have a new world champion on its register, a man who leaves no doubt about his positive view of the place.

The mayor, Luigi Di Magistris, told Italian radio that his office was considering giving honorary citizenship to Pepe Reina (right), a man keeping Napoli, a club without a scudetto (Italian title) since 1990, at the top of Serie A.

Reina, 33, played his 50th Serie A match on Saturday - a landmark that seemed unlikely when he left Napoli after one year in the summer of 2014 to take a gig as understudy to Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich.

He played just over 200 minutes all season for the German champions and it looked like his career might have taken an irreversible stride away from the week in, week out pressures that had been Reina's experience at Barcelona, Liverpool and for nine months in southern Italy, where his former manager at Liverpool Rafa Benitez first encouraged him to move, on loan.

Reina fell a little in love with Naples then and seems even more enamoured of the place now.

He recently released a photo of his children's bedroom, the walls painted with a swirly sky-blue mural featuring the Napoli club crest. The little Reinas sleep under matching Napoli duvet covers and pillow cases from the club shop.

When Napoli take points from the northern powerbases of Serie A, they bring them, in Reina's words, back to Italy's "land of sunshine".

Napoli have been doing so consistently since September, when they recovered from a poor start, under a low-profile successor to the departed Benitez, the Naples-born Maurizio Sarri, to develop into the most attractive of the cluster of clubs pursuing the scudetto.

Saturday's 3-1 win over Sassuolo at the San Paulo was their fourth successive league victory. It featured two more goals for the league's leading scorer, Gonzalo Higuain, now on 20 from 20 matches.

There was more decisive proof of Reina's renaissance - an accomplished sliding tackle, 20 yards outside his own penalty area - when Napoli led 2-1, to amend for his own scuffed clearance, and resolve a moment of jeopardy.

The Spaniard has kept clean sheets in half his 24 matches, across competitions, since his return to Italy.

In Serie A, Napoli became winter champions - leaders at halfway - last weekend having conceded 15 goals in 19 fixtures.

Compare that to Benitez's final campaign, when the gloves were shared between the Brazilian Rafael and Argentina's Mariano Andujar and 54 goals were conceded and Napoli finished fourth, outside of the Champions League spots.

Reina was at that stage watching from afar, the underused understudy at Bayern, whose coach Pep Guardiola knew Reina had the professionalism and temperament to be a fine, if overqualified, second-choice.

It's a hard task for many senior goalkeepers. But Reina has had to play the deputy before, knows it requires patience, stoicism and is best carried off with a good deal of bonhomie, a quality he kept foregrounded through a long career with the Spain national squad, all of it spent as deputy to Iker Casillas.

Yet every Spanish fan will forever associate Reina as the MC, the joker and extrovert, the Andalucian with an abundance of allegria, addressing the crowds.

He makes his voice heard at Napoli, too. Sarri, the coach, describes Reina as "the joystick of our defence", for the way he commands. Marek Hamsik, the Napoli captain, called him "a wizard" after his saves against Inter in November's 2-1 win that put Napoli top for the first time.

If Napoli lead the table in mid-May, Reina can assume the mayor will be in touch, and he will have what he never won at Liverpool, or gained as a bystander at Bayern. A championship medal in which he was a decisive, dominant participant. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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