A week ago Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva put pen to paper on a new ‘long term’ contract, rewarding the talented Brazilian for his impressive performances this season and recognising his increasingly influential role at the heart of the team, while also signifying possibly the biggest u-turn in supporter opinion in recent history.
Signed from Gremio for £5 million in July 2007, the diminutive midfield man was initially seen as a real capture and an exciting prospect, particularly considering the relatively small fee paid and the intense interest shown in him by many other top European clubs.
However, the 2006 Bola de Ouro winner unfairly bore the brunt of heavy criticism from supporters and pundits alike, as he struggled to adapt to the pace of the Premier League and the enormous weight of expectation placed upon anyone who pulls on the famous Red shirt. The much-maligned Lucas was seen to be slowing down the game unnecessarily and lacking the foresight to play incisive forward passes, instead preferring to pass square and backwards.
With pass-master Xabi Alonso and midfield hardman Javier Mascherano providing formidable competition for a place in Benitez’s midfield many believed Lucas’ role in the side should have been minimal. However, the reverse proved to be the case as he featured regularly, making over 30 appearances in his debut season despite failing to convince many spectators.
As a result Rafa was vehemently criticised for stubbornly refusing to drop Lucas, who was perceived to have received excessive leeway from his under-fire boss. Although this view has some justification, those calling for Lucas to be dropped crucially failed to appreciate the key role Lucas played in the side, keeping the engine room ticking over quietly yet efficiently.
This was most blatantly demonstrated by former Reds midfielder and current Sky pundit Jamie Redknapp after our 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford last season, when Redknapp blamed the loss on the sale of Xabi Alonso, claiming that the Spaniard had been pivotal to our 4-1 victory against United during the previous campaign.
In fact, Lucas had started in place of the injured Alonso on that day and was central in our comprehensive victory, proving the Brazilian’s importance and starkly showing the widespread ignorance of his contribution to the side, as well as demonstrating the research (or lack of) done by the red-faced Redknapp.
Nevertheless, with Alonso joining Real Madrid in the summer of 2009 Lucas’ role in the side became more pronounced and increased in importance, as he partnered fellow South American Javier Mascherano in the centre of midfield. Although he was mainly utilised as a defensive midfielder, Benitez began to afford the number 21 more licence to foray forward, particularly in the Europa League, where he impressed frequently.
Following years of derision Lucas has finally proved the doubters wrong this season and won over the majority of supporters, putting in some top quality performances, displaying determination and dedication to the cause and developing composure and comfort with the ball at his feet, allowing him to spread the play and start attacks while also breaking up opposition attacks with crunching challenges when necessary.
With want-away midfielder Mascherano leaving a significant hole in our midfield Lucas has exceptionally stepped up to the plate and filled the Argentine’s boots brilliantly, forming a blossoming relationship with £11 million summer signing Raul Meireles. As Meireles’ attacking prowess continues to grow, so the stability afforded to him by the conscientious Lucas persistently provides a platform for the Portugese international to support fellow new arrivals Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.
On top of his promising club form, Lucas has slowly become a regular fixture in the Brazilian national side; with head coach Mano Menezes picking him to patrol their midfield on numerous occasions. He hasn’t disappointed either, performing diligently in the background in order to allow his more talented attacking team- mates to shine, in a similar fashion to his role at Liverpool.
Most importantly Lucas has earned a near permanent spot in Dalglish’s midfield, with the legendary Scot rewarding him with both regular first team football and a new, long term contract. Lucas can now look forward to a prolonged and, should our recent resurgence persist, successful spell on Merseyside.
It’s been a long journey back from the wilderness for the scapegoat, but now he’s gradually becoming a Samba star and, more importantly, an Anfield hero.
To read more from Ollie visit his blog here: http://oliverjmsmith.blogspot.com