Lucas Leiva’s take on the controversy surrounding Raheem Sterling’s leisure-time activities is that footballers should be role models — for each other. Liverpool’s Brazilian midfielder is reluctant to list himself among the club’s senior professionals — although he has been there for eight years — but his advice to younger players is to do what he did and learn from the established names in the dressing room.
“I was very young when I came here and, when I looked around, I would see Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso or Pepe Reina and how they conducted themselves,” he said. “They were real role models. They were successful not just because of their talent but because they did things the right way.
“These days, it is hard to give any kind of advice to young players because they have so many people around them. Ten years ago you had more space. Now you have to be careful because everyone is filming or taking pictures on their phones. All I would say is, don’t get carried away by it all. Watch and learn from the players you respect.”
Lucas struggled to break into the Liverpool team at first because Gerrard, Alonso and Javier Mascherano were all ahead of him. Now, only Gerrard is left and he will be bowing out at the end of the season. When Lucas came to England in 2007, he joined a club that had just won the FA Cup and been to two Champions League finals. Since then, there has been a solitary League Cup success —and he missed it through injury.
Not only will this afternoon’s FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa be his first appearance at Wembley, but the competition also represents his best chance yet of ridding himself of an unwanted record. With 271 appearances under his belt, Lucas is the longest-serving Liverpool player never to have won a medal since the club regained top-flight status in 1962.
The general view is that the FA Cup could save Liverpool’s season, though despite Lucas’s yearning for a trophy, he is realistic about what would actually constitute the ideal end to the campaign. Since Manuel Pellegrini described Manchester City’s final eight games as eight cup finals, his side have managed to lose the first two of them to sink to fourth. Any more slips could see Liverpool qualify for next season’s Champions League.
“It is still open,” Lucas says. “If City drop points, we will try to make the most of it. We just have to keep winning our games and see where it takes us. We were not as good as City in the end last season. We have to hope this season might be different. Certainly, the belief is still there. If you look at the table, our bad start is costing us at the moment. If we had managed two or three more wins we would be challenging for second or third.
“Of course I am interested in medals and trophies, but I also want to be playing at the highest level. That is what the Champions League means and that is what the club needs. It is hard to choose between the FA Cup and the Champions League, but maybe at the end of the season we could achieve everything we want. If we won the FA Cup and got top four again, it would be an incredible achievement.”
Now 28, Lucas is on his fourth Liverpool manager. Apart from Rafael Benitez, who signed him for the future, he has had to win them all over. Supporters, too, took a while to appreciate his qualities, though now he is a valued member of the squad who will become even more important on Gerrard’s exit.
“I didn’t think I was going to stay this long,” Lucas said. “I felt I might be gone after the first season. The time goes fast, but I am still here and still proud to play for Liverpool. The last injury set me back a little bit, but in the last couple of games I felt back to the level I was before, which is great. When I am fit and well, I think I can offer a lot to the team.”
A first FA Cup final for Lucas would also be a last one for Gerrard, and a Liverpool win could mark the start of one of the longest goodbyes in football, a sentimental and sickly-sweet Scousefest building up to a tearful departure on the grandest stage of all.
“I think it’s his birthday as well, which would make it even more special,” Lucas said with a smile. “Of course it would be brilliant for Stevie, and he deserves it, but everybody else here deserves a trophy too. Stevie has won many trophies. The rest of us are waiting to get started.”