This weekend Liverpool will face Norwich at Anfield without their most important midfielder. No need to read over that again, or frantically Google 'Steven Gerrard, Hamstring', because I'm talking about Lucas Leiva, who will miss the tie thanks to a one game suspension.
At the beginning of the season, when Gerrard was absent through injury, many pundits and armchair know-it-alls fretted over how Liverpool would cope without their talismanic captain. How could the midfield possibly gel at the beginning of a new term with such a gaping chasm? And most importantly how would Liverpool's new signings bed in without Steve Gerrard to ease them into the Liverpool mould? This was a fair point, Steven Gerrard's contribution to Liverpool is overwhelming, and any side lacking his vision and leadership is understandably going to suffer, however what the blogosphere and some of the nations finest hacks had overlooked was a player ready to step into the breach, and a man who had snatched the club's player of the year title merely months before.
Lucas Leiva is never going to win over everybody on Merseyside. Too many have been swayed by early, uncharacteristic criticism of him by the Anfield faithful, and despite gargantuan efforts, by himself and certain sections of support, he seems destined to be looked upon by some, as a stop-gap who is filling his midfield role until somebody better comes along.
Many seemed happy to overlook Lucas' role in the Brazillian squad and his highly decorated U21 career, choosing instead to tell endless football phone ins that he was 'just norra Libpool player.'
This is massively unfair treatment of a player, who since arriving as an attacking midfielder from Gremio in 2007, has adapted and developed his game to suit the needs of the club. At first he shared the criticism with scapegoat #2, Rafa Benitez, who consistently chose Lucas alongside Gerrard in the latter days of his reign at Liverpool. This was seized upon by Benitez's detractors and his selection of Lucas was cited as one of the reasons that he wasn't fit to manage the club. Many seemed happy to overlook Lucas' role in the Brazillian squad and his highly decorated U21 career, choosing instead to tell endless football phone ins that he was 'just norra Libpool player.'
Four years later and Lucas is just that, he is still a Liverpool player. In a defensive midfield role he has flourished and provided much needed assistance to Liverpool's ailing defensive unit, he has provided ample cover for Steven Gerrard in the skipper's ever more frequent absences, and Kenny Dalglish became the third Liverpool manager in succession to reward the Brazillian with the captaincy, in the recent friendly against Glasgow Rangers?
So what are people missing?
Lucas doesn't score goals, and occasionally gives away free kicks in central areas, but the same can be said for his predecessor, the much lauded and £22 million valued Javier Mascherano. Leiva is building into the mould of Mascherano, he does the dirty work whilst Gerrard, Downing and Suarez collect the plaudits.
Even the most blinkered of Liverpool fans must be ready to accept that Steven Gerrard doesn't have long left, his game is slowing, and he admitted on his latest return from injury that 'last six months have been the hardest of his career', also suggesting that he had doubts if he would ever return to full fitness. He is still a match winner, he will still score important goals in the ilk of his free-kick against Manchester United last week, but Liverpool must produce that new leader, a new midfield engine room, and Lucas Leiva is the man for that job.
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