'He's got an air about him': Pepe Reina already making big impression at Aston Villa as they battle for survival

John Percy
Pepe Reina is expected to make his debut at Brighton on Saturday - Aston Villa FC

Last Sunday, Pepe Reina was sitting high in the Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park and watching on as Manchester City ripped his new team to pieces.

“And he still signed!” said Aston Villa’s head coach Dean Smith, half-joking, with Reina completing his return to the Premier League at the age of 37 the following day.

Reina is expected to make his debut at Brighton on Saturday, nearly seven years after his last appearance in English football with Liverpool, and the Spanish goalkeeper is a signing Villa hope will prove crucial in their battle to avoid dropping back into the Championship.

After losing Tom Heaton for the season with a knee injury earlier this month, Villa were determined to recruit a new No 1 with experience, leadership qualities and a winning mentality.

Reina certainly provides that: at Liverpool he was in a dressing room including the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres, but was still said to be the natural leader and the biggest character.

He is also a three-time Golden Glove winner, making 396 appearances for Liverpool and winning the FA Cup and League Cup. There was even a statistic doing the rounds on Friday that he has more goal assists (four) to his name than Manchester United midfielder Fred.

It is only a loan deal from AC Milan until the end of the season, and Reina is expected back in Italy in the summer with the future of Italy international Gianluigi Donnarumma still uncertain.

Yet Smith has already seen enough this week at Bodymoor Heath to feel convinced that Reina could prove invaluable.  

“I just think Pepe Reina's experience tells you he's going to be respected in that dressing room straightaway. He's a World Cup winner,” said Smith.

“He's got an air about him, you see that on the training ground. He certainly won't accept falls (in performance), that's for sure. He's probably what we need in the dressing room at the moment.

“We are a fairly young squad, our recruitment in the summer was players with potential and these kind of players (Reina) can help them fulfil that potential with their experience.

“I wouldn’t bring anyone in if I didn’t think they could play straight away. Looking at him in training, and listening to him speak, he is certainly ready.”

Reina’s arrival will relegate Orjan Nyland, a Norway international, to the bench but Villa are in a position where ruthless decisions are required.

That 6-1 humiliation by the champions last weekend conspired to leave Villa in the relegation zone, ahead of three potentially pivotal league games.

Aston Villa suffered a thrashing at the hands of Manchester City Credit: getty images

After Saturday’s game at Brighton, they face Watford at home on Tuesday night before a trip to another struggler, Bournemouth.

Smith insisted games against the likes of Manchester City do not define Villa’s fate this season, yet these next three matches unquestionably will. He stopped short of confirming it, but Smith seemed to suggest his team will need six more victories to guarantee survival.

“We know what the points tally is likely to be because you’ve got the history that tells you that,” he said. “We have 16 games left and we pretty much know what we need.

“The players know that, to retain Premier League football, they have to win games, battle and scrap for every point.”

At least Villa’s arduous pursuit of a striker is coming to a conclusion. The absence of £21 million signing Wesley, and proposed sale of Jonathan Kodjia, has left Villa without any recognised forwards at a critical stage of the campaign but they are close to signing Mbwana “Ally” Samatta from Genk.

Samatta flew into England on Friday ahead of a £8.5m move from the Belgian club and the Tanzania international should be available next week once he is granted a work permit.

Villa are also keen to sign another forward, probably on loan, with Leicester’s Islam Slimani understood to be a target.

But it is the next three games that could tell us everything about Villa’s survival chances. Reina, at the other end, is going to be busy.