Losing a central figure in your line-up doesn’t always damage your future.
On modern-day Merseyside, Liverpool FC fans are still smarting from the loss of midfield maestro Xabi Alonso, a founding member of Rafa Benitez’s collective and a man forever associated with its greatest hit – the improbable 2005 Champions League Final win in which Alonso scored the equalising goal. Now at Madrid, those memories of the Basque midfielder are all that are left, and it is time for somebody else to create some new ones.
It is to that end that around £18m has been spent on the Italian Alberto Aquilani – a genuinely gifted attacking midfielder who, in the words of his new manager: “has good passing – the final ball is good – and he also works. He can play a little bit higher than Javier Mascherano – maybe between him and [Steven] Gerrard.” But Aquilani is injured. Fans have expressed concerns at his ability to last the rigours of a Premier League season, concerns that stem from a summer ankle operation which means that he won’t be seen in action until mid-September at the earliest: “the point is we’ve signed him for five years, not five games,” says Benitez, but without him the central midfield torch is passed to a man who still has plenty to prove to many.
Last November’s goalless draw with Fulham at Anfield was the low point of Lucas Leiva’s Liverpool career. Fans’ frustrations at being unable to break down a stubborn and impressive Fulham side were taken out on the young Brazilian and, drained of confidence, he frequently gave the ball away in an error-strewn display that he later admitted was his worst for the club. When Benitez brought on Alonso for Mascherano, fans booed the boss for not withdrawing Lucas instead. It was a year earlier, and in an even more surprising substitution, when most were introduced to the Brazilian – a £6.75m signing from Gremio. With a Merseyside derby locked at 1-1 at Goodison Park, Benitez took the shock decision to bring on Lucas for Gerrard – who he later famously accused of “showing too much passion.” Everton fans celebrated the substitution like it was a goal but a calm Lucas – on his league debut – was solid, did the simple things well and saw a goal-bound shot handled on the line by Phil Neville in stoppage time – Dirk Kuyt converted the penalty to win the game.
In the absences of Alonso and Aquilani, Lucas will have a key role in the Reds’ engine room in the opening weeks of the season. With Liverpool the only one of the three main title contenders to face a tricky opening day fixture – Sunday’s game at White Hart Lane is their sixth successive away start – one in each of Benitez’s seasons – then Lucas and his teammates have to hit top gear from the first whistle.
He matured in the closing months of 2008/09. An unsung hero of the 4-1 win over Manchester United in March, Lucas bulked up, got a sensible hair cut and even got married in the summer. Benitez hailed him as the star of Liverpool’s pre-season in his programme notes before the weekend defeat to Atletico Madrid – a match in which Lucas scored Liverpool’s goal and was their best performer.
He is no Xabi Alonso, very few are, but he does compare with the Spaniard favourably in some areas. His largely unnoticed defensive work strikes a good balance with the metronomic Mascherano, while he’s undoubtedly a better attacker than Alonso, often getting into good positions only for his finishing to let him down. Improve that, and he could be pushing 10 goals this campaign.
There are still plenty of detractors – it’s likely that there always will be such is the fickleness of football, but the man himself remains resolute: “Sometimes I hear things said about me, but to be honest I don’t care too much. I only care about the team and the squad. Now I have to focus on the forthcoming season and continue to work hard and improve. I will try to prove I have the quality to be in the team and hopefully help Liverpool win the title.”
Do that, and the 22-year-old will have followed Pink Floyd in proving that change can be for the better. Nothing more than just Another Brick in the Wall? This is Lucas’s chance to prove his critics wrong.