Lucas no longer fears the jeers

Maligned midfielder given key role in Liverpool line-up against Debrecen tonight
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He has blond hair, blue eyes and at 19 he was the best player of his age in Brazil. In both marketing and footballing terms, Lucas Leiva should have been Liverpool's answer to Cristiano Ronaldo.

It did not quite work out like that – and not just because not everyone from Brazil performs with the uninhibited freedom of a Ronaldinho or a Socrates. Leiva was seen by many on the Kop as a lightweight, taking the place of a favourite in Xabi Alonso. Compared to Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano, the golden boy from Brazil's deep south appeared a misfit in midfield, summed up by his dismissal in the Merseyside derby defeat in last season's FA Cup fourth round replay.

The lowest point probably came in November in a goalless draw with Fulham, a team that had never previously won at Anfield. Leiva was jeered off. "Normally, when you play at home, you expect good things from your fans," he said before tonight's Champions League opener against the Hungarian champions, Debrecen. "On that occasion, Rafa Benitez chose me to play alongside Javier and left Xabi on the bench when he had been playing really well.

"It wasn't just me; the team didn't play well against Fulham but I think people looked on that change as the reason why. They thought Lucas playing in Xabi's place was the key to Liverpool playing badly. I tried hard to understand this and that occasion made me stronger."

Frankly, he doubts he would still be on Merseyside were it not for Benitez's constant backing. The Liverpool manager paid Gremio £6m for their teenage captain, completing the signing just as a party from Manchester United was flying out to Brazil in the hope of clinching their own deal and has always insisted the investment would be justified.

"We had some conversations, especially after the Fulham game and when I was sent off against Everton," Leiva said. "He said I was young [he is now 22] and that I had to improve. I knew this. Rafa has no problem if he doesn't like you – he will tell you straight away. But he told me that he believed in me and that I would be a really good player. Now I have the chance to prove him right."

With Alonso gone to Real Madrid, Leiva has seized his chance to shine. During Saturday's 4-0 pummelling of Burnley, he was given a standing ovation when going up to take a corner, a gesture that would have been unthinkable six months ago.

"Nobody likes to see papers or people saying bad things about them; it is hard for you and your family," he said. "I have just tried to stay focused and believe in my football. I knew I had played really well in Brazil and that I could get to a good level in England, although I knew it would be more physical.

"I have done some extra work with weights and have gained four kilos but I need to gain more." Leiva added that, mentally, he coped with his own-goal during last month's defeat by Aston Villa better than he would have done last year.

Although Debrecen have won the Hungarian title in four of the last five years, the chances of them upsetting the odds at Anfield in their first full appearance in the Champions League appear slim.

With Lyons and Fiorentina to come, Benitez – who will appeal against an FA misconduct charge levelled after his criticism of the referee in the opening-day reverse at Tottenham – is likely to field a largely unchanged team on the grounds that whipping boys have to be whipped.