Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva believes this season has proved he has the quality to be a long-term success at Anfield.The Brazil international was a much-derided figure among fans during his first three years after signing from Gremio in July 2007.However, following the departure in successive summers of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano the 24-year-old has grasped the challenge of added responsibility and is enjoying the best form of his Reds career.In previous campaigns he was criticised by supporters for being a favourite of former manager Rafael Benitez but this term has fully justified the belief the Spaniard had in him when others had their doubts.
I admit it. I have crow feathers sticking out of my teeth. I was one of those who groaned every time I saw Lucas in the starting lineup. Up until this season, he was the Liverpool player I loved to hate. I often wondered how Liverpool managed to find the one Brazilian who didn't seem to be preternaturally gifted with a soccer ball at his feet. I watched through my fingers every time I saw him bearing down on an opponent anywhere near Liverpool's own goal box, dreading the sound of the referee's whistle and the crowd roar signifying another penalty kick being awarded. His passes didn't show any creativity on attack, and his reckless tackling was a liability on defense. He used to constantly give away free kicks in dangerous areas and accumulate yellow and red cards like they were prizes. Oh, how I wished he would be sold to another team, post-haste, but there he was, week after week, seemingly immune to the injuries that sidelined so many top players.
But taking on the task of being the sole defensive midfielder after the departure of Mascherano seems to have coincided with him settling down and assuming a more confident role. His defensive work has been stellar and his energy boundless. During last weekend's demolition of Birmingham, I recall one play where Liverpool's 17 year-old left back, Jack Robinson, drafted into a starting role out of desperation following a spate of injuries to several experienced players, was shepherding an attacker toward the corner flag by himself, when Lucas joined in to help him out. Just as I was thinking it myself, the commentators noted what a great help he'd been all game long to Robinson and John Flanagan, the teenage right back, playing under similar circumstances, making sure they were never left alone where their inexperience could be exploited. After they'd successfully won a throw-in from their efforts, Robinson was trotting away, and as the camera lingered on them for a moment, I saw Lucas call out to him, and when Robinson turned back, he slapped his hand in encouragement and congratulations. It was a nice little snapshot of what a mature team leader he's turned into.