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Pepe and Pep
Aston Villa boss Dean Smith has remained tight-lipped about who will play in goal for his side at Wembley on Sunday, but after his heroics in the semi-final against Leicester it would be very harsh if Orjan Nyland doesn’t get the nod.
If that is the case, Pepe Reina could find himself on the bench - a position that he could conceivably have been occupying behind Pep Guardiola rather than Smith, had history panned out differently.
Reina and Guardiola are no strangers to one another. When Pepe was forging his trade as a young goalkeeper at the Camp Nou, Pep was reaching the end of his Barcelona playing career. The season 2000/01, in which Reina made his breakthrough into the first team, due to injuries to both the first and second choice goalkeepers, was Guardiola’s last for the Catalan giants, before he signed for Italian club Brescia. By the time he returned to the club in 2007 in a coaching capacity, Reina had moved on, via Villarreal, to Liverpool, where he spent 8 happy years.
But although Pep and Pepe’s paths hadn’t crossed for a while, they soon would. After a sabbatical in the USA, Guardiola took over at Bayern Munich, and needed an experienced back up to Manuel Neuer between the sticks - so he signed his old pal on a 3 year contract. It was a record breaking move… when Pepe pulled the gloves on to face FC Augsburg, and make his Bayern debut some 7 months after he joined them, he became the first Spaniard, the first goalkeeper and the first World Cup winner to play in the top 4 European leagues - Spain, England, Italy and Germany.
Reina’s spell in the Bundesliga only lasted one season, before he headed back to Italy, and back to Napoli, where he had played on loan a couple of years previously. But although the two Spaniards had parted ways again, this wasn’t the end of the relationship. During a goalkeeping overhaul at the Etihad in 2017, Joe Hart and Willy Caballero left the club, current number 1 Ederson joined, and Guardiola tried to recruit Reina as experienced back up to the young man, but Napoli turned down the bid. So, after seeing out his contract, he moved on to AC Milan, before joining Villa in January this year after Tom Heaton picked up a serious knee injury.
The Carabao Cup Final aside, if Reina manages to play a part in keeping Villa in the Premier League it will rank as one of the most important achievements in a long and illustrious career that has seen him play for some of the biggest European football clubs.
Pep Guardiola once said of the youth system at Barcelona: "The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest, it's a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child.” A quarter of a century on from when Pepe first stepped into that magical academy as a 12 year old, he will come face to face with his old friend, colleague and captain at the English National Stadium, and the experiences they have shared over the years will ensure it’s a warm meeting between the two men.
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