Picture the scene. Liverpool, mounting a realistic Premier League title challenge for the first time in six years, are playing host to Fulham at Anfield, knowing that a win could take them two points clear of league leaders Chelsea. The Reds face the Cottagers well aware of the visitors’ travel-sickness, with Roy Hodgson’s side having picked up just two points in six away games.
Unfortunately the early morning optimism dissipates, and the afternoon proves to be a frustrating one for the Anfield faithful. Despite Fernando Torres’ return to the starting line-up, a resolute Fulham hold Liverpool to a draw and cost the Reds two crucial points.
Lucas Leiva, curiously selected to deputise for the absent Steven Gerrard, is booed by a small section of the Anfield crowd and made a scapegoat for the side’s impotency. The 21-year-old, who has endured a tough time in L4 since arriving in the summer of 2007, has struggled to make an impact and frequently finds himself behind fan favourites Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in the midfield pecking order.
Fast forward to the penultimate week of May 2011 and neither Alonso nor Mascherano sports the Liver bird on their chest any more. Both components of this once-feared midfield-axis have moved on to pastures new; Alonso to Real Madrid, and Mascherano to Barcelona. Meanwhile, Lucas, once a perennially mocked and derided figure, has been named the Standard Chartered Fans player of the year after tallying 40 per cent of the 129,774 votes cast.
Speaking about the award to the club’s official website, he said: “I wouldn’t have expected this (in my first season). The way I started my career at Liverpool wasn’t the easiest, but as I have said before, I wouldn’t change anything.
“The difficult times just made me stronger and stronger and I tried to improve all the time. That’s what I am doing now.”
The issuing of the award caps a fairytale-esque turnaround for Liverpool’s number 21. No longer a byword for mediocrity, the reliable Brazilian has worked hard to establish himself as a key player in Liverpool’s starting XI.
The former Gremio man, effectively tasked with replacing Mascherano and Alonso, has incorporated elements of both of his former team-mates’ games into his own.
Hesitation and caution have been replaced by calmness and incision. Lucas is seldom dispossessed and his passes are no longer solely to the back and to the side. Witness for example, his exquisite through ball to Luis Suarez in the first minute of Liverpool’s recent 5-2 triumph away at Fulham.
Although not as explosive as Mascherano, Lucas has excelled at breaking up opposition play in the middle of the park. He thrived in key home wins against Manchester United and Chelsea, successfully thwarting more distinguished central midfielders. The Brazilian finished 2010/11 with more tackles (172) than any player, whilst attaining a respectable tackle success rate of 65%.
His ascension from frustrating fringe player to first-team regular owes a great deal to the faith of former manager Rafael Benitez.
Speaking in December 2008, Benitez said: “”People just don’t know how good Lucas is. He is a fantastic player, he was captain of his club side at 19 and has already won full caps with Brazil.”
Shorn of Alonso and the Spaniard’s replacement Alberto Aquilani, Benitez placed greater responsibility upon the 24-year-old in 2009/10, and his faith was rewarded with much more assured displays. Lucas featured 35 times for the club in the Premier League that season, and his progress led to him being voted the club’s Young Player of the Season.
After Benitez’s departure, many envisaged an Anfield exit for the Brazilian, but he stayed at Liverpool and continued his good form into the new season. He maintained his first-team berth under Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, and his consistency culminated in a new long-term contract.
Moving to play football in a different continent at a young age is a difficult transition to make at the best of times, but this is made even harder when one’s displays are constantly criticised. Instead of moaning or pining for a move away, the boy from Dourados knuckled down and worked hard to become a player worthy of the red shirt.
In this era of quick-fix fickleness, it’s nice to see how far a little hard work, faith and support can go.
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