Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard last night showered praise on Pepe Reina for his role in taking the Anfield team to a second Champions League final in three years. The Spanish goalkeeper saved penalties from Arjen Robben and Geremi to contribute to a 4-1 shoot-out triumph after Daniel Agger's early goal had taken the teams to extra-time. It was Liverpool's 11th victory in 12 competitive penalty shoot-outs. "We have the best goalkeeper in the world," said Gerrard. "We saw his penalty saves before he came so we knew all about him."
Reina follows his father to the showpiece European final - he kept goal for Atlético Madrid in the 1974 final. Yet it is not only nature which has honed the reflexes of Reina junior but nurture too. They are well honed from experience: in his last season at Villarreal before joining Liverpool the penalty specialist saved seven of the nine spot-kicks he faced, before making the decisive stop from Anton Ferdinand in the FA Cup final shoot-out.
Since arriving at Liverpool his team-mates have also kept him on his toes. "We had the players practising in every session on penalties," said the victorious manager, Rafael Benítez.
"Two or three of the players practise penalties every day. We had the confidence in the penalty shoot-out because we have the best goalkeeper in the world. You need your keeper in penalty situations as a bonus and he was superb. Pepe is always good with penalties and in the final of the FA Cup he was fantastic."
Gerrard was effusive also in his praise of his outfield team-mates and manager. Chelsea took a 1-0 lead to Anfield after comprehensively outplaying Liverpool at Stamford Bridge but succumbed to their second Champions League semi-final defeat to Liverpool in three years. "The first time was special but to do it again from being a goal down against a magnificent squad like Chelsea is fantastic," said Gerrard. "The manager's tactics were spot on and the players stuck together out there. We crossed that line and stuck together out there. The players fought for every ball together. If we are through to the final it has made all of that hard work worthwhile."
There was motivation for ailing limbs, however. The Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, had dismissed Liverpool as "historically a monster" but that their achievements this season made them a little club. Gerrard admitted it had driven him. "The players read the press," he said. "We understand it but that's Jose Mourinho. He has been a credit to English football. He makes us laugh but for him to say that we are a little club was a bit disrespectful. Two European Cup finals in three years is not bad for a little club is it? It was a bit disrespectful to call us a small team.
"But credit to Chelsea. Frank Lampard and John Terry were magnificent after the game. They wished us well for the final. I take my hat off to them."
Mourinho, characteristically, was unapologetic, reprising the theme by saying that his team had sought to win the tie while a physically fresher Liverpool had played for penalties. "I felt that even against a team who has only been playing in the Champions League, we were very strong," said Mourinho.
"Physically in the second half and extra time we were the only team that tried to win in 90 and 120 minutes. But penalties are part of the game. They scored and we didn't score and they are in the final."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007