Brazil – the quintessential football nest of the world; a place where some of the finest talents in the game are born. Few fly away to distant lands to let their football do the talking while a few stay back and choose to chase glory on home soil.
Creativity, exquisite dribbling abilities and an eye for a pass are just a few of the qualities that one would attribute to any Samba star. And there are many players that have lived up to this mark. Pele, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka; the list just goes on. And the younger pool of players has just as many names touted to make a mark in the world of football. Being football fanatics who are tempted to open any piece of news with the headline ‘The Next Big Thing in Football”, more than often, we stumble across a name coming from Brazil. One such name was once taken. It was Lucas Leiva.
It all began in 2007. Lucas Leiva was a name that was resonating all across Brazil. Thanks to the media and word of mouth, this name fell on Rafa Benitez’s ears. The manager wasted little time in reviewing the player and at that time, to make a move for a 20 year-old who has won the Brazilian Young Player of the Year award, has captained his club (Gremio) and the national youth team and who has won international caps at senior level was never going to be a tough decision.
Merseyside welcomed Lucas after Liverpool paid 6 million pounds for his services. Fans from all over were rubbing their hands in anticipation to watch a Brazilian weave his magic at Liverpool FC. Sadly though, their happiness was short-lived.
The Man Who Bought the Brazilian
You cannot break the magical trio
Having stepped on a different continent altogether, Lucas was bound to take sometime to adapt to the English game. However, a blind belief running amongst a lot of fans is that Brazilians really don’t care much for the nature of the league or geographical locations or the effort required to get into the drift. They are considered immune to all factors except their game. However, when Lucas’ initial performances failed to send the fans in raptures, there were few surprised faces in the stands and this prejudice was put to rest.
The inability to pace up to the English game and the unfortunate misplaced passes were rising steeply and this was something that concerned fans and players alike. Many felt let down by this purchase and felt that Lucas was one of those ‘once in a blue moon’ players coming out of Brazil who is, well, “nothing” at the end of the day.
Fans and critics jumped on the same boat to easily put a cross against his name instead of a tick. Why this turned out to be a huge blunder is because, to begin with, Lucas’ biggest challenge was not to tune himself to the English game and to living in England at such a tender age, but to sew himself into the Alonso-Mascherano-Gerrard partnership that was blossoming with each passing day.
Alonso was at the peak of his game after having won the Champions League and the FA Cup since his move from Real Sociedad. Mascherano was eager to make his mark in the Premier League after being underestimated at West Ham. They were like two lions ready to pounce on their prey. And there was, of course, club legend and Liverpool’s talisman, the irreplaceable Steven Gerrard. You’ve really got to posses some flabbergasting skills to break this trio.
And Lucas simply didn’t know how to do it. It is not his fault really, since his time and attention obviously went into improving his own game to match up to the others. Nevertheless, he couldn’t nick himself into the starting XI amongst such big names in world football and this shadowed the name Lucas Leiva to a large extent. 2007 was not a good start to Lucas’ career. Anyway, moving on.
2008/09 – Avenues in sight
The 2008/09 season was a pot of mixed luck for Liverpool. Having finished second, just behind arch rivals Manchester United , the Reds were surely gutted seeing their on-pitch enemies get the better of them. But the 2nd place finish over Chelsea and Arsenal surely gave them much needed confidence for the upcoming season. The yang was that one of the club’s best foreign players, Xabi Alonso, had made up his mind to leave after being told Gareth Barry would be preferred over him if Liverpool could capture the Englishman. That was horrible news for every Liverpool supporter.
Xabi’s loss = Lucas’ gain
This opened up a new window of opportunity for young Lucas. Despite Alonso having played his best season, his mind was already made up which meant Lucas was going to have to take up a magnanimous responsibility on his shoulders, starting 2009/10. This drove the gaffer to give him more first team chances in other domestic competitions like the FA cup and Carling cup. Although there was no remarkable improvement in his performances and overall game play, there was something about him that one would realize much much later.
2009/10 – Opportunities Galore
With the departure of Xabi Alonso, Liverpool had no doubt been dealt a huge blow. However, they just couldn’t afford to slip in the pursuit of their 19th league title; something that they came really close to in the previous season. However, by the time the season began, Benitez realized that Liverpool had become addicted to Alonso’s game. His range of passing and immaculate ball releases was something every other Liverpool player had gotten used to. And the first step taken towards damage control was purchasing Alberto Aquilani from AS Roma. The idea was to purchase a player who can mirror Alonso.
Aquilani is no doubt a player of panache. He has the nous to be ever present in the game and although he can offer much more in attack than Alonso, it was his versatility that led to his purchase albeit he was struggling with injuries. And even in those times, it was Lucas who started alongside Mascherano. It was never an easy combination to swallow espiecally since both are defensively aligned, both prefer staying deep and most importantly, neither had the ability to spread the play on the move or on counter. This made Liverpool look really bad on the pitch; however, Mascherano was never going to receive as much flak as Lucas did. And Lucas did receive a lot of criticism from all over. Many, by then, were hoping he would be taken off the Liverpool squad irrespective of which transfer window it was going to happen.
Aquilani’s return made life further difficult for Lucas. On pitch and while viewing, there was simply nothing new that it seemed he could do when compared to his early days at Anfield. He did have the potential to scale up and the manager was the only one supporting him but this was never going to be enough for Liverpool’s no.21. Liverpool’s dismal performance in 2009/10 was a culmination of many things going wrong for the club – new owners (Hicks and Gilett at that time), Alonso’s departure and Steven Gerrard’s sporadic absence due to his injury. And Lucas was also a name taken for the wrong reasons.
2010/11 – Patience Pays Off
Over a period of 3 years, Lucas has had to deal with a lot difficulties on the pitch and not off it. Adapting to the squad turned out to be his biggest challenge and everytime he looked to forge a partnership with any midfielder, it looked to be cursed and the partnering midfielder would just move away from Liverpool. While the molten frustration was pouring in from all over, one thing that everybody failed to notice is that Lucas was actually putting in every ounce of his effort to improve his game. This is an indication of professionalism as well as the desire to succeed and not give up. It’s rare to locate such qualities in youngsters these days and to have witnessed it in Lucas was something nobody expected.
Lucas – A Rising Star Indeed
After 3 years of patience, behind-the-scene ongoings and several random articles calling for his head, Lucas came back with a bang. He was immune to the impact of the new faces and his game combined a bit of Mascherano and a bit of Alonso. His tackling had improved so remarkably that he now wins the ball without having to go down tackling for it; a common sight in the first three seasons.
His passing has taken a relatively wider range than before. It still needs to be polished but it sure has let people know what to expect from this player. With one of the highest pass completion percentages in the squad, Lucas has proven to be an epitome of patience, composure and resilience. He is now one of the most important first team players and is vital to Kenny Dalglish’s plans for rebuilding Liverpool and take it to its glory days again.
When you are surrounded by good lighting and you look at the sky, you hardly see a few stars. But when you are in darkness long enough, you see more stars than in the former case. In a nutshell, this has been the rise of Lucas Leiva – Liverpool’s player of the season.
And the rise has just begun.