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As fan favourite Lucas Leiva departs Anfield for Lazio after ten years on Merseyside, we take a look back at the popular midfielder’s incredible rise from Kop hate figure to cult hero. If you’d had told me after the conclusion of Lucas Leiva’s decidedly underwhelming first couple of campaigns in a red shirt following his £5m move from boyhood side Gremio that the Brazilian stalwart would outlast everybody in perhaps Liverpool’s greatest side of the Premier league era I don’t know whether I would have laughed or cried. Such was the disdain for the midfielder that the then 22 year old was booed by the Kop following a lacklustre draw against Fulham in 2009, many levelling criticism at both the youngster and the manager as opposition to his continued presence in red came to a head. The criticism irked Benitez and he responded with a passionate defence of his player, saying that “people just don’t know how good Lucas is.” That, we didn’t. Lucas began his career in England in the deep end. Thrown on by Rafael Benitez to replace talisman Steven Gerrard against nemeses Everton in the hostile and, at times, vitriolic atmosphere of Goodison Park, with the Huyton-born local hero withdrawn by the Spanish boss as tempers flared in the local derby, much to the surprise of the Reds faithful. The Brazilian, who had arrived in the mould of the man he replaced that day as a box-to-box attacking midfielder added an air of calm to Liverpool’s midfield, a prescient sign of what Lucas came to represent in his ten years at Anfield, as events reached boiling point in a tempestuous affair in one of the most dramatic Merseyside derbies in living memory. Lucas, who had gained widespread acclaim at Gremio the season prior, joined a counter attack in a way that, in the nicest possible sense, would come to be seen as very much uncustomary for the Brazilian and earned a penalty when his goal-bound shot tested former Manchester United defender turned (for the moment, at least) auxiliary goalkeeper Philip Neville who was dismissed for his efforts, which was duly converted by the reliable Dirk Kuyt as the Reds triumphed in the most dramatic of circumstances. Frankly, however, that moment remained the highlight for Lucas during a difficult and, at times, frustrating first couple of campaigns at Anfield. Lucas was sent off in a cup tie against Mersey rivals Everton, which Liverpool lost. This compounded his growing unpopularity amongst Liverpool’s supporters, after he gave away a late penalty in Liverpool’s previous match, a 11 draw with Wigan Athletic. Granted the Brazilian, contributed admirably in the now famous 4-1 and 5-1 wins against Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford and St James’ Park, respectively, providing a key assist in each game as Liverpool mounted an ultimately unsuccessful title challenge before providing a goal as Liverpool succumbed to defeat against Chelsea in the 2009 UEFA Champions League. Signs of improvement were scattered for the Brazil international and as the Reds finished in a disappointing 7th in Rafael Benitez’s final campaign at Anfield, it was roundly expected that the midfielder (as seemed to become a theme in the campaigns that followed in his later Liverpool career!) would follow the Spaniard out of Merseyside. The year that came would, however be the making of the midfielder. Lucas, against the odds stayed as off- field issues regarding Liverpool’s ownership left the 5 time European champions’ very existence hanging in the balance. Liverpool stuttered during a tough period of transition through the dark months of Roy Hodgson’s tenure at Anfield to a more respectable 6th position under caretaker Kenny Dalglish, when one considers their decidedly horrific start to the 2010/11 campaign where the Reds occupied positions in the bottom half of the table for much of the season. The one highlight on the field during this period was, undoubtedly, Lucas himself, who much to the delight of the Anfield faithful, arguably carried a Liverpool side that would go down in history as one of their poorest in living memory. In the most dramatic of turnarounds, The Brazilian was deservedly named Liverpool Player of the Year Award in May 2011, completing one of the most welcome and unlikely of individual revivals in our recent history, a testament to the character of a man who, when the cards were down, could always be relied on. I think it is fair to say the real triumph in Lucas’, at times, mercurial Liverpool career, is his immense character and a level of loyalty that is an increasingly rare commodity in the modern game. It is easy to forget that following Lucas’ triumphant run of form during Liverpool’s disappointing 2010/11 campaign, he suffered a succession of serious knee injuries, the first of which occurred on 1 December, when it was confirmed he was out for the remainder of the season after he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury after he collided with Juan Mata in the 20 win over Chelsea in the quarter-final of the League Cup. In another show of his distinct never say die attitude, the Brazilian battled back to star over the next few seasons, remaining a consistent and quality asset as he became a mainstay in the Liverpool setup. Whenever called upon, the midfielder would deliver, becoming arguably the most valued member of Liverpool’s squad in the dressing room following the departures of leaders Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. For many fans , Lucas came to represent a link to a period where Liverpool truly were amongst the best sides in Europe, and his presence as the final survivor from arguably the Reds’ greatest team of the Premier League era is simply a mark of his great character as well as his, at times unsung quality off the pitch. This, coupled with his popularity with fans and players alike off the pitch meant the midfielder, capped 24 times for his country, became an invaluable part of Liverpool’s varied level of success during his time at the club. The midfielder did, of course, have offers to depart Anfield on a regular basis, so much so that it became a running joke for Reds fans every transfer window with the Brazilian turning down Inter Milan and Besiktas, most notably, in the final years of his tenure. The Brazilian, who looked set to leave Anfield for the Turkish club in 2014 for first team football ultimately stayed, finally agreeing to play an, at times, bit part role under Brendan Rodgers, in a sign of his love for the club. Such was his desire to play for the Reds that he, time and time again, turned down, at times, more alluring offers to play regular first team football for more money, something that endeared him even further to Liverpool fans. In his final years at Anfield he played a valuable role for the Reds, at times filling in, to great effect at centre-back, a role he was untested in for Liverpool; again, Lucas doing his reputation as an adaptable and resilient player no damage at all. The overawing sense regarding Lucas during this period was that he yet again had put the team before himself, a theme that was consistent throughout his career and, ultimately, became a big factor in the great relationship that he developed with the Anfield faithful. The charismatic Brazilian, during his ten year stay at Anfield, immersed himself fully the customs of the club, becoming an adopted scouser, as he embraced the rigmaroles of Liverpool life. This was something he was immensely proud of and a detail that endeared him no end to the Reds faithful. His grasp of the famous quick Liverpudlian wit is astounding and I defy anyone to not raise more than just a smile when listening to his unmistakable Brazilian-scouse tones. A unique character and one that will be remembered especially fondly by all Liverpool fans for his personality, bravery and attitude as well as his consummate and assured performances on the pitch. Quite simply, I think I speak for all Liverpool fans by saying the midfielder leaves Merseyside with our blessing and appreciation, as one of our own.
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