By Greg Cooper
When Lucas Leiva joined Liverpool in 2007, Rafa Benitez claimed that â€œI am looking forward to seeing him score goals for Liverpoolâ€. A hundred and eleven league games later the goal tally stands at one.
Benitez can be forgiven for this outlandish claim though as Lucas was a very different proposition back then, than what he is now. At Gremio, his first club, Lucas was known as trequartista or a â€œclassic number 10â€ and hailed as the next Kaka by the press. In this role he excelled, winning the Bola de Ouro which is given by the magazine Placar to the best player in Campeinato Brasileiro, with ex-winners such as Romario and Zico the award is not to be sniffed at, especially as Lucas is the prizeâ€™s youngest ever winner. However, in Brazil it is easier to play this role than in England, the slow pace and the space and time allowed for sides in Brazil is in stark contrast to what is expected of players in England and Lucas, like any other player, was destined to struggle with this.
While Liverpool never got the player they thought would replace Vladimir Smicer or provide back-up for Luis Garcia, they got a whole lot more. Liverpoolâ€™s fans were slow to realise this however. They blamed their poor form on Lucas after the departure Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid. Gareth Barry was supposed to replace Xabi Alonso – another stupid deal but one that made sense; both were well respected internationals after all. When this didnâ€™t happen, Lucas was forced into the limelight in a position he was still fairly unfamiliar with and was immediately compared to Xabi Alonso, a great player, but one that was all together different. It didnâ€™t help that he was in a midfield that included two fan favourites in Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard. Every team needs a scape goat and when Liverpool finshed seventh in 2009/10, Lucas was inevitably it. Lucas was castigated as a â€œnothing playerâ€, as he just â€œdidnâ€™t do enoughâ€. On one hand this makes me want to take a shit in the middle of the Kop, on the other it is understandable as Liverpool fans have been brought up on the all action ability of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Another criticism aimed at the Brazilian is that he simply wasnâ€™t Brazilian. There was no flair, no tricks, no mazy dribbles and the Kop just couldnâ€™t understand why not.
Now though they have voted him player of the season. What has changed? You metaphorically ask. After emerging as the only positive from Roy Hodgsonâ€™s reign, Lucas is a fan favourite and the managerâ€™s favourite. After all what manager would not like the Brazilianâ€™s mix of unselfishness and hard work. You rarely see Lucas play a misplaced pass, and he has consistently maintained a high pass completion rate, alongside other defensive midfielders like John Obi Mikel. Not only does Lucas keep the ball well, he also wins it an unerringly high amount, an ability to read the game like an â€œInverting the Pyramidâ€ reader, mixed with the ability to tackle like good old Bobby Moore, means without him Liverpool are nothing.
As with any defensive midfielder though, they are labelled as â€œthinking manâ€™s playersâ€ or â€œGuardian readersâ€™ playersâ€, while this is undoubtedly true, Lucas Leiva shouldnâ€™t be. He has proved himself time and time again as one of the better midfielders. In last seasonâ€™s midfield diamond vs midfield diamond clash against Chelsea, Lucas emerged as the best midfielder on the pitch, this is no mean feat when the other seven midfielders are Frank Lampard, Gerrard, Raul Meireles, Maxi Rodriguez, Michael Essien, Mikel and Nicolas Anelka. The fact that he is holding down a starting place for Brazil should also make people stand up and notice his undoubted quality.
Lucas Leiva has been ridiculed and has risen out of one of the worst periods in Liverpoolâ€™s recent history. Now with the Liverpool fans no longer booing but cheering and with Lucas as one of Dalglishâ€™s first names on the team sheet, the non-Brazilian Brazilian will only become more of a cult hero.