Lucas Leiva's Signed A New Deal: Here's How He Became Liverpool's Best Player

Written back when he was sidelined with injury, Lucas Leiva has quickly become one of Liverpool's most important players and it's fair to say the Brazilian is fully deserving of his new contract.
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Written back when he was sidelined with injury, Lucas Leiva has quickly become one of Liverpool's most important players and it's fair to say the Brazilian is fully deserving of his new contract.

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Four years ago, Liverpool had the best midfield in the world. The Kop even sang a song about it. 'We've got Xabi Alonso... Momo Sissoko... Gerrard and Mas-cher-aaaaa-noooooo!"

Meanwhile on Merseyside, quietly trying to make his way in a new country with a starkly alien culture and very little initial grasp of the English language, was a young reserve player with flowing blond locks and a vivacious enthusiasm for the game.

He'd arrived for big money, billed as a prodigious creative midfielder from football's exotic homeland of flair and fancy. Still a teenager, he had just one senior season under his belt, but in that one campaign he'd led Gremio to the Copa Libertadores final while still a teenager, and in the process became the youngest ever recipient of the Brazilian league's award for player of the year. Younger than Tevez had been. Younger than Kaka, than Ronaldo, than Zico even.

Goldielocks had undeniable pedigree. But reputation counts for nothing when you're trying to break into Rafa Benitez's glittering, Champions League-winning engine room.

He'd wait for an injury or a suspension, and then stumble into a cauldron of pressure and impatience. In replacing Xabi Alonso, the world's foremost holding midfielder, or Steven Gerrard, the league's ultimate deep-lying attacking force, this timid novice was expected to swim a medley in the deep end against the currant of football's most ferocious and unforgiving tide. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. And so it proved.

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Lucas Pezzini Leiva is an educated middle class lad from the small city of Dourados, close to the border of Paraguay in Brazil's south west. He was prepped for a career in business or economics before his outstanding ability on the football pitch took over. But during his first couple of years in England, he might've considered falling back on his academic qualities.

Many Liverpool fans detested Lucas with an unhealthy passion. As far as they were concerned, he was overhyped, overpaid and lacking the cajones to make an impact in the big league. His fleeting appearances offered little evidence of the sparkling report Benitez had attributed to him. He was both sloppy and inhibited. And what's more, he wasn't in any way creative. He didn't even approach doors, let alone prise them open. Liverpool fans were expecting the new Kaka. But at his best, Lucas was a mild improvement on Igor Biscan. At his worst, he was a Sunday league chaser with the composure of a schizophrenic chicken.

It all came to a head during the 2008/09 season. Leiva had been struggling to find his feet in the big league, and giving away a last minute penalty at Wigan, and then getting sent off in the derby against Everton - all in the space of seven days - only compounded his misery. Being booed by the Anfield faithful during a disappointing draw with Fulham could've been the last straw, but his manager protected his fledgling. "Some day, people will realise how good Lucas is," forecasted Rafa Benitez.

Fast forward three years and that day Benitez predicted has now been and gone...

While Liverpool stuttered - initially in the latter days of Benitez's reign, and then so markedly under Roy Hodgson - Lucas quietly, rapidly grew. His shyness evaporated as his shoulders became broader. His reluctance to put a foot wrong was superseded by his drive to make a difference, to meet the ball, to commit defenders, to probe with his passes, to rally the troops around him. That Lucas has become one of the pearls in Benitez's Anfield legacy is testament to the Spaniard's foresight and perseverance.

Not only are Liverpool fans now in full agreement as to the multifacted qualities Lucas provides, the 24-year-old's stock has risen dramatically in wider circles, too. He is a regular in the full Brazil national team and could well captain the Selecao on home soil at the next World Cup. Elsewhere, Kenny Dalglish has fended off approaches for Lucas from powerhouses in Spain and Italy in recent months.

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It's little wonder there's been interest. Until his injury last season, the rebranded Lucas was Liverpool's best player. In the absence of Gerrard, and latterly of Carragher too, the dynamic Brazilian has developed into a focal point, and something of a natural leader. His fine example - superhuman work rate, cutting edge decision making, strength and desire in combat - has been an infectious influence among the newer signings beside him, and will only benefit his absent captain upon his 2012 return.

Leiva made more tackles and interceptions than anyone across Europe's biggest four leagues in his last full season in 2010-2011.  Against Chelsea last season, he bossed from start to finish, gliding effortlessly around the Stamford Bridge turf, picking off Blues attacks and instinctively starting his own team's counters in an instant. In the Man City tie, he played better still, stifling David Silva's artistry and Yaya Toure's power with his own single-handed combination of energy, craft and cunning.

Meanwhile, he's also punching well above his weight in pass completion stats, and the method and destination of his staple use of the ball has improved immeasurably. No longer does he take the easy option by popping the ball off sideways or backwards for the sake of it. No longer does he pass the buck. In a round about way, he is evolving into the creator he was originally billed to be. But in addition, he's an enforcer and a water-carrier all rolled into one.

Lucas Leiva not only looks at home swimming in football's deep end these days, he's leading a synchronised visual masterpiece in the middle of the Premier League's choppy waters.

And while Liverpool may no longer possess the greatest midfield in the world, they might just have one of the planet's great midfielders of the next decade.

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