By Jamie McLaughlin and Chris Rowland.
August 28th 2007. Six years ago today, Liverpool were playing Toulouse in a Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round 2nd leg at Anfield.
After 68 minutes, Momo Sissoko departs and is replaced by a young Brazilian making his Liverpool debut.
Happy sixth anniversary, Lucas Leiva.
Except it hasn’t all been happy, far from it. It is remarkable how Lucas’ reputation has changed since that first appearance in a Red shirt. Lucas has been one of the most criticised Liverpool players in recent years. Many denied he was Brazilian because he didn’t play like one. By which they meant he wasn’t like Rivaldo, Rivelino, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Zico or Pele. “The worst Brazilian player I ever saw”, “the worst Liverpool player since Traore” was the level of bile directed towards him. Lucas became the scapegoat for many a poor team performance, even shamefully being booed by his own fans on more than one occasion.
He admitted he needed some time to settle in: “Things were not looking good and some supporters were obviously not happy. The move to Liverpool represented a change of country, language and there was also the not so small detail that I was only 20 and arriving at a traditional club in one of the most demanding leagues in the world. Also, few people seemed to remember Liverpool had a group of players that had made two of the last three Champions League finals. Maybe the supporters thought a Brazilian midfielder would do magic. In Gremio I had carte blanche to go forward and participate more in the attacking plays. But things had to change when I arrived in Liverpool, where I am used much more as a holding midfielder. That transition took time and made settling in even more challenging.”
Back home he’d been the next golden boy. In his first season for Gremio in the top-flight in 2006, Lucas became the youngest-ever player to receive Placar magazine’s Bola de Ouro (Golden Ball), given to the best player in the Brazilian league, an honour previously won by the likes of Zico, Falcao, Careca, Romario, Kaka and Tevez.
Bought from Gremio for £5m in May 2007 by one Rafa Benitez, Lucas took part in 32 competitive matches during his first season in English football, the highlight being his equaliser against the might of non-League Havant & Waterlooville at Anfield. But hardly surprisingly, Alonso and Mascherano were Rafa’s preferred choice in midfield in the 2008/09 season, with Lucas only twice making the starting line-up.
It was only after Alonso’s move to Real Madrid and Javier Mascherano’s departure early in the 2010/11 season that Lucas became established in the side. Those two were a hard act to follow, having left at the apexes of their careers whilst Lucas was still some way short of his. But he got his chance to play regularly in Liverpool’s midfield early in the 2110-11 season, making steady progress as a holding midfielder. He gradually began to win over substantial sections of the fanbase as he became one of Liverpool’s key players. The fourth most prolific tackler in the Premier League, he was voted Standard Chartered’s Player of the Season in 2010/11, signing a new long-term deal at the end of March 2011 that tied him to LFC until 2015.
After a brilliant start to the following season when he reached a level of assured composed performance that was almost matchless in the game at the time, his season was cruelly ended by injury at Stamford Bridge when Liverpool beat Chelsea in the quarter-final of the League Cup. Lucas suffered damage to his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee which kept him out until the start of the 2012-13 season. Suddenly it became apparent that (a) we had a world class performer in this role and (b) we had no one to replace him. Still don’t. No player has replaced him effectively. Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard have all recently tried to replicate the Brazilian’s specialised role, but none have filled it as well, as results have proved. It was a classic case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’
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