Lucas: 'The boos at Anfield were my worst moment'

A year since the lowest point of his career, Lucas is still struggling to win over many Liverpool fans, despite his recent form. He tells Sam Wallace about Alonso's departure and how Benitez helps him in the bad times
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Lucas Leiva cannot suppress a smile when he is reminded of the moment, 18 minutes into the game against Manchester United on Sunday, when he clattered into Paul Scholes, won the ball and played in Dirk Kuyt who almost scored. It was the moment that said Lucas was not going to be pushed around.

The Brazilian midfielder has a theory about himself and the attitudes towards him since he joined Liverpool in the summer of 2007. "Here in England when people think of Brazilian footballers they think Robinho or Ronaldinho, doing skilful tricks," he says. "But we cannot forget we have good players in Brazil who do different things. I am a midfielder. I cannot do tricks and things like that. Maybe people expect that but it is not my best quality.

"The tackle [on Scholes] was a good moment, not just for me but for the team. We started well, we were on top and had some chances. After that game I feel stronger. I'm a positive man, if I listened to everything I would not be focused and I would not be a good player. I just try to get the positive things and try to change."

At Liverpool, the mood has shifted radically in the last six days following that epic victory over United at Anfield. But has it shifted for Lucas? He is the player who divides opinion among Liverpool fans like no one else. He has been a target for supporters' frustration, yet on Sunday he was one of the team's most important players.

Today's game against Fulham at Craven Cottage has a significance of its own for Lucas. It is 11 months since he was booed by his own fans during a 0-0 draw against the same opponents at Anfield.

The incident caused a lot of hand-wringing among Liverpool fans appalled at the treatment of one of their own. Lucas, a man who rarely stops smiling and talks about football with a thoughtful intensity, remembers it well. He regards that Fulham game as an epochal moment. When we met this week at Melwood, Liverpool's training ground, he explained how the doubts about him have made him into a better player.

"Fulham was the worst moment because it was the first time anything like that had happened to me but it was an experience I could learn from," he says. "Maybe it will happen again but now I have the experience. You have to understand the supporters. They were expecting Xabi [Alonso] that time and he was on the bench. The game wasn't good, we were not playing well so I understand. Playing well is the only way you will change it.

"When I came to Liverpool, I came with a target: to make history. Nobody wants to come to a club and become just one more player. Since that moment [against Fulham] I tried to protect myself. I stopped reading newspapers. Each time I listened to criticism it made me stronger. If you just get the negative things you don't improve. I just try to get the positive things. A lot of people believe in my qualities." Chief among them is Rafael Benitez who has started Lucas in every Premier League and Champions League game this season. There is a touch of the mini-Rafa about Lucas: he smiles, he is reasonable and gracious but there is real iron in his soul. He left his home in the city of Dourados in south central Brazil at the age of 14 to pursue his career and, now 22, he has had to do a lot of growing up along the way.

Lucas is unsentimental about the departure of Alonso to Real Madrid this summer. Is Alonso's absence the reason Liverpool have struggled at times this season? Liverpool have lost four games already in the Premier League and face a must-win game against Lyons in the Champions League on Wednesday.

"Sometimes people focus on one player to explain why we lose games," Lucas says. "Of course Xabi was really important for Liverpool but in football anything can happen. Xabi left and we cannot accept people talking about Xabi and Liverpool because he is not here anymore. We hope he will do well in Madrid because he is a really good friend of ours. I learnt a lot from him. But as soon as he left I thought maybe this is my chance to play some games."

Bought from Gremio in May 2007 for £6m, Lucas was recovering from injury when he signed and returned to Brazil to play his final game for the club in the Copa Libertadores final, which they lost against Boca Juniors. As the captain of Brazil's Under-20s team, the South American champions at the time, he had offers to go to Spain too but he picked Liverpool, because of the reputation and because of Benitez.

"Rafa has been really important for me because he has always spoken to me when I had bad moments. He says to me, 'Listen, you have quality, you have to improve, everyone can improve but you have to keep working'. He knows I am a worker and I try to do everything I can. The people in the club have been really good to me.

"This is the first time I have played a lot of games in a row so it makes it different and also it was my first pre-season with Liverpool. The first time I arrived in the middle of pre-season and the second season was the [Beijing] Olympics [in which he won a bronze medal with Brazil]. This year I did a proper pre-season, everything was different and that is why I am feeling really good at the moment."

I mention to Lucas that Benitez is not exactly famous for being so free with his praise, especially according to the testimonies of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Fernando Torres. "He speaks with me but he always says 'You have to improve'. Maybe he will not say 'Well done' every time but you can feel when somebody likes you. He gives me advice to get better. That is why he has been really important for me." Lucas comes up with a good description to capture the significance of the match against United; he says it was "the biggest game in the world on that day". Every one of his friends would be watching, his family back home and the coach of the Brazil national team, Dunga, who has given Lucas his international debut.

At the end of the interview he turns his phone on and learns that he is in the squad to face England in Doha next month. It means a lot to him – "It will be a good game. I hope Stevie doesn't play!" – although he is behind former Arsenal captain Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo of Juventus for a place in midfield.

The sentimental view of Brazilian players is to imagine them learning the game in a favela and rescuing their families from poverty with their first professional contract. Lucas does not quite fit that bill. He comes from a middle-class family; his father Jackson is a dentist and his mother Tania is a florist. He left home to go to a football academy run by the former Brazil international Jose Oscar Bernardi and on to Gremio in the south of the country.

"In Brazil, it is really hard [to make it as a player] because the competition is really tough," Lucas says. "On every street corner you see somebody playing football. You need quality but you have to be lucky. There are a lot of good players and unfortunately not everyone will become a big player. Every year 600 to 700 players leave Brazil so wherever you go you will find a Brazilian player."

There is pedigree in his family however, his father's older brother – nicknamed Leivinha – won 21 caps for Brazil as a striker and played at the 1974 World Cup finals. He is a hero of the Sao Paulo club Palmeiras but he also played for Atletico Madrid and won a Spanish title there in 1977. Leivinha's career was ended by injury at just 28, a reminder to Lucas that time is short as a player.

"He was a really good player, a forward who used to score a lot of headers," Lucas says. "After his career ended he coached young kids and then he worked as a TV commentator and he still works for the radio. It is difficult when you get older, you have to prepare in your head to stop playing because our life is crazy. We train all the time and when you stop you don't have anything to do."

Lucas lives with his wife Ariana, whom he married in the summer, in the Calderstones Park area of the city. He has competition for his place in the team from Alberto Aquilani, who made his debut in the Carling Cup on Wednesday, although Benitez has indicated that the Italian will play in a more attacking role. Lucas believes that Sunday's result has saved their season and, as he was at pains to point out, they are only five points behind the leaders Chelsea.

"We were in a difficult moment, we had to win but in that game we could show character and quality as well," he says. "That will give us confidence to carry on. A lot of things will happen in the next seven months. It is too early to talk about titles. We are also in a difficult situation in the Champions League but in 2007 we had one point from the first three games and won the next three. This is Liverpool, anything can happen."

Boys from Brazil: Where they are now

Lucas captained Brazil's Under-20 South American Youth Champion-ship-winning team in 2007 in a side including a number of stellar names:

LUCAS LEIVA (Midfielder)

Played at 2008 Olympics and has started regularly at Anfield since Xabi Alonso's move to Real Madrid.

RENATO AUGUSTO (Attacking midfielder)

The Flamengo youth product joined Bayer Leverkusen in July 2008, for a reported fee of €10m.

JO (striker)

An £18m move from CSKA Moscow to Manchester City proved unsuccessful. Is currently enjoying better fortunes on loan at Everton.

ALEXANDRE PATO (striker)

Joined Milan from SC Internacional whilst still 17. Scored 18 goals in 2008-09, his first full season for the Rossoneri.

Ollie Wright

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