Benitez's 'pet' Lucas becomes real workhorse
Brazilian midfielder hopes endeavour will finally win over his critics.
Rafael Benitez was fond of telling the story of how he had to drag the then Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry to a fax machine to ensure the club tied up the services of Lucas Leiva before Manchester United got in first.
It was when Benitez divulged exactly the same anecdote about the Italian defender Andrea Dossena that the scenario seemed to be the product of the rancour the Spaniard often seemed to feel for Parry, but the former Liverpool manager was certainly always determined to demonstrate that he called it right on Lucas. Benitez's actions seemed to be bordering on the bloody-minded as the Brazilian's name kept appearing on last season's team sheets. Lucas appeared more times than Javier Mascherano in Benitez's final campaign and only once fewer than Steven Gerrard. The Anfield Road was not always delighted.
It's not easy being considered the manager's pet project when that manager happens to have gone and the arrival of Christian Poulsen and, after Mascherano had been sold, Raul Meireles contributed to the feeling that Lucas would be yesterday's man in the Roy Hodgson era. That is why the sight of the 23-year-old, many observers' man of the match in Sunday's 2-0 win against Chelsea, suddenly revealing why Benitez saw so much in him is remarkable.
Lucas reflected yesterday on how fragile his grip on a Liverpool career has seemed in the light of Hodgson's arrival. "Everyone knows Rafa had a lot of confidence in me, so last season was different," he said. "Everyone could [also] see the manager brought in a midfielder [Poulsen] while Mascherano was [also] here. We had a lot of midfielders. But I don't really think about things too much. If at the end the manager doesn't play me, it is his decision. All I can do is work really hard."
This test happens to have been set as Lucas has needed to prove to the new Brazilian national coach, Mano Menez, with whom he worked at Gremio, that Dunga was wrong to omit him from this summer's World Cup squad.
But Poulsen has not yet proved the asset Hodgson probably thought he was getting for £4.5m and Meireles has curiously found most success on the right flank in a position previously alien to him. Lucas's performances, meanwhile, have hinted that his match-winning display against Manchester United in October last year – he and Mascherano were simply too powerful for Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick – was not a flash in the pan. "It is also good to show that there is more to Brazilian players than just tricks," Lucas reflected. "You need to show that you can do the dirty job for the team. That's what I'm trying to do. I play defensive and get forward when I can."
Lucas is often making this point and is an ardent admirer of Milan's Gennaro Gattuso, another player in the same role with whom he happens to share a birthday. Yet he actually seems to be undervaluing the more creative part of his own game – visible as he set up Maxi Rodriguez for what might have been a third Liverpool goal on Sunday. Lucas actually seems to fit into a heritage of the old-fashioned Brazilian No 5 – including Clodoaldo from the 1970 World Cup-winning side – who sits as a defensive shield but creates too. Lucas has tended to look at his most impressive for Liverpool when given the licence to advance up the field.
Benitez's faith in Lucas makes it easy to forget that the defender is still only 23 and yet an experienced Premier League player. "I'm getting older and I think I am getting better," he said. But for him, like Fernando Torres, the most genuine test of whether Liverpool really are rehabilitated from their poor start to the season comes tomorrow night at Wigan, the scene of a horror show in a 1-0 defeat last season. "That game felt like a heavy defeat," Lucas reflected. "It was clear that we didn't play well. But every season is different. We have three victories in a row and are five games unbeaten. We go there with confidence."
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