Lucas eyes happier New Year after becoming toast of Anfield
Published 23/12/2010 | 05:00
Since January, there has been a sense at Anfield that 2010 simply cannot end soon enough.
Liverpool's 118th year of existence was the one when the pressure of the past became too much to bear, condemning the reign of Rafael Benitez to the most ignominious of ends, and when fear of what the future may hold reached fever pitch on the steps of the British high court.
Alone among the wreckage of 12 months to forget, Lucas Leiva has been able to live in the present. If he left 2009 widely regarded by most inside and outside Anfield as a laughing stock, evidence of Benitez's blinkered folly, he will enter 2011 as a mainstay for club and country.
It is a remarkable turnaround. In the Brazilian's case, after all, it is not just any club, and not just any country.
Not that his ascension to acceptance has been easy. Nothing has, since the £6m transfer in 2007 that took him from one side of the Atlantic to the other. This is a man, after all, who was one handball away from being an instant hero, but somehow found himself cast as the emblem of all that was wrong with Benitez's tenure.
It is clearly the sliding doors moment which, to the 23-year-old, encapsulates his early troubles in England. "My beginning here was strange," he says, seated in an anteroom at Liverpool's Melwood base.
The instant he is referring to, of course, was his first taste of the Merseyside derby, a 2-1 win over Everton at Goodison in October 2007, just three months into his Liverpool career. He was brought on for Steven Gerrard, no less, much to the bafflement of captain and fans alike.
It might all have passed unnoticed, had Lucas' goal-bound shot not been handballed by Phil Neville on the line ("it was a better save than (Luis) Suarez's for Uruguay in the World Cup"). Lucas would have been a hero, Benitez a genius. The Everton captain's intervention did not alter the course of the game -- Dirk Kuyt scored from the resultant penalty -- but for the Brazilian, the die was cast.
"That maybe showed me my career would not be easy," he says. "But maybe it showed too that it would be successful in the end."
That he can reminisce about that moment now perhaps illustrates how far he has come. Twelve months ago, it may not have been so romantic. Still fresh in his mind then was the disdain and derision he received from his own supporters that, at one point, grew so fierce, he admits he feared the prospect of playing at Anfield.
However, the improvement in Lucas has been evident for almost 12 months, ever since the man-of-the-match display in the 1-0 victory at Aston Villa on December 29 last year, but it is in the first half of this season that he has finally started to earn praise from outside observers. Indeed, some would argue that he has been one of the few positives to emerge from the first six months of Roy Hodgson's tenure.
Here too, though, Lucas' progression was not easy. Despite his improved performances in the second half of last season, he was informed last summer that, should a suitable offer arrive for his services, Liverpool would be happy to sell. Three years on, he found himself back at the sliding doors.
"A few offers came, but Liverpool did not accept them. I am glad that I stayed, because I am playing well and I am more important now than I was a few months ago."
While that is clearly a sentiment shared by Liverpool -- Hodgson has spoken of contract talks, though they are yet to start -- it is no surprise Lucas feels he has passed both tests.
Not only has he shaken off the tag of sub-par substitute, which seemed destined to haunt his time in England, he has also emerged as a key part of the new Brazil, as crafted by Mano Menezes, his former coach at Gremio.
Menezes has been tasked with honing a Brazil side for the 2014 World Cup and has entrusted Lucas with the No 5 shirt in his team, marking him as heir to Dunga, Cerezo and Gilberto.
Weighed down by the past, he would be forgiven for being intimidated by the future. For Lucas Leiva, the reformed laughing stock, the present is so enticing, though, there is no need to think beyond it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)