When searching for reasons to explain Liverpool’s troubles this season, it’s hard to look past the injury to Lucas Leiva.
The Brazilian international, who has won over the fans after five seasons at Anfield, started the season brightly for Kenny Dalglish’s side as a first team regular under the Scot.
However, an anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered in the Carling Cup win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in November put the former Gremio starlet out until next season.
Lucas had to do things the hard way at Anfield, arriving for £5 million under Rafael Benitez in 2007 with great expectations.
However, times were tough in his first two years with the club, being booed off by fans and competing for a regular place against the likes of Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard.
But, whilst it clearly took the 25-year-old time to adapt to English football, Lucas showed signs of finding his feet towards the end of the 2008-09 season, and would feature in 35 Premier League games the following year.
When Roy Hodgson signed Christian Poulsen the next summer, suggestions were that Lucas could fall down the pecking order. However, the 20-cap international outshone his rival, and when Kenny Dalglish took charge in January he remained at the heart of the side.
The fans were suitably impressed, voting Lucas the Player of the Year on their official website.
The current campaign appeared to be going the same way for as well for Lucas, with 15 starts in all competitions before the trip to west London cut short his campaign.
Since the injury, Liverpool have won just five Premier League games, picking up 19 points from 17 games in the process. Whilst success in the Cup competitions has masked such poor form, the recent bad run has served to highlight the team’s ongoing difficulties in the English top flight.
That compares to 23 points from 13 games before the injury – a quite clear discrepancy. And, whilst the injury is obviously not the sole problem on Merseyside, it has amplified other issues.
Jordan Henderson, who has under-performed this season, has played more minutes than would have been expected if Lucas was fit, for example.
For the Brazilian, his current aim is to keep working hard on rehabilitation, and return stronger than ever next season.
"I know everyone is disappointed (about Wigan defeat), but we need to move on and keep working. My rehab is going well and hopefully I will be fit for next season. It was a bad injury so I need to recover properly to be strong again," said Lucas on Twitter over the weekend.
He will return to a difficult schedule though, with Europa League football assured thanks to the Carling Cup final victory over Cardiff City last month. Dreams of a place in the Champions League are all-but over though, after five losses in six saw the Reds lose tough with the fourth-place pack.
Dalglish will have to treat Lucas with care on return, and may have to re-think his strategy in terms of playing his strongest sides in Cup competitions.
Realistically, the clubs first team regulars will not be able to challenge on all fronts without a certain degree of burnout. If ‘King Kenny’ is saying his players are tired now, then it’s going to be even worse next season.
In that sense, the priorities will be clear to see very early on next season. Are Liverpool a cup team, looking to add silverware to the trophy cabinet, or a team looking to return to the top four and club football’s elite in Europe?
Either way, Lucas will probably be able to help with one of those tasks – it just remains to be seen which one.
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