From the moment he arrived at the club, Brendan Rodgers had Lucas Leiva pegged as one of his go-to-guys. Rodgers could see in the Brazilian the honesty of effort, adroit technique and moral courage needed to implement his ideas about high-intensity, possession-based football on the field of play. It was a hammer-blow to the Northern Irishman when he lost the midfielder so early in his time as manager, especially given the shambolic end to that summer's transfer window and the resultant effect on his already thin squad. The seriousness of Leiva's injury left Rodgers heavily reliant on Joe Allen, his first major signing, but alas, the Welshman would, in turn, struggle badly with injury and an attendant loss of form and confidence.
Leiva's most recent set-back is his third lengthy lay-off in two seasons and the timing of this latest knee injury has had many significant consequences for the team and for the player himself. The Liverpool midfield has generated more debate than a fretful Irish Senate House threatened with closure and since the Brazilian's last appearance, as a substitute against Aston Villa in the 2-2 draw on January 18th, the manager has had his hand forced into a notable change in the structure of the Redmen's engine-room.
Steven Gerrard is now the established base of the midfield, often seen deeper than the centre halves as he defends opposition attacks or begins new ones for Liverpool. As he's grown into the role, there have been the usual grumbles about positional awareness and mobility but Gerrard has begun to win around many dour observers, at least partially. It's not that he suddenly reads the game in a Pirlo-esque fashion or had Jordan Henderson's stamina surgically inserted, it's more that he is a fabulous footballer who has worked out how best to operate in that role.
With the urgent dynamism of Jordan Henderson ahead of him and one of either Allen or the magical unicorn that is Phil Coutinho, rounding out a midfield three, the England captain has been increasingly comfortable in his role, making vital tackles, winning aerial duels, pinging forty yard balls to feet and venturing forward when his team is trailing.
The upshot of this evolution is that Lucas cannot be sure of his place in the starting eleven upon his return. Rodgers was exceedingly slow to see that a midfield featuring both the England skipper and the likable Brazilian is seriously challenged in the mobility department, and the enforced change has seen a far more fluid and high-energy side emerge. At home the pressing of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling is the initial buffer before Coutinho and Henderson get snapping. Away from home, the tidy efficiency and dynamism of Joe Allen replaces the unique vision of Coutinho without the side suffering in any way.
Should Lucas manage some minutes successfully in Sunday's clash with crossing connoisseurs, Manchester United, Rodgers will have a a tricky call to make. Clearly Leiva is a trusted lieutenant and the continued selection of Glen Johnson tells us that the Antrim man can have his blind spots when it comes to loyalty but will he risk changing the chemistry at this point, with ten monumentally significant matches left to play in this most propitious of campaigns? Armchair analysts will bicker ad nauseum, but Lucas has had to work hard to garner a reputation as a solid performer and there will be those that would not hesitate to reinstate him at the earliest opportunity.
When he first joined the Liverpool first team squad, Leiva had to content himself with looking on as perhaps the greatest midfield in Europe strutted its stuff on the Champions League stage. Ironically, it was injury to Gerrard that allowed the Brazilian the time to bed-in and really perform. Now, the 27 year old must sit and await his chance again. This time around, however, the stakes are as high as they've ever been in his career. Lucas desperately wants to represent his country in the World Cup on home soil this summer. Having a regular under the previous management, Luiz Felipe Scolari had left him out only to include him just before his injury struck. This has left Leiva with a belief that he may still have a chance to force his way into the squad.
"It's a massive two months for me, especially looking towards the World Cup at the end of the season as well, so I can't afford to miss many more games," insisted the amiable meio-campista. "I knew the injury wasn't too bad. I knew something happened but of course I was disappointed I wouldn't be able to make the last international game. When you are out of the international team and squad there is always someone else who will have a chance to impress, the competition for places in the Brazil squad is so big, so that's why I'm really confident that if I have a good two months ahead then I will have a chance to play at the World Cup. That would be like a dream for me - playing for my country in Brazil.
"It's going to be massive, but as I said, what I do for Liverpool is what's going to get me in the Brazil squad, so I've just got to concentrate on the next 10 games and hopefully help Liverpool to do good things until the end of the season. Injuries aren't good but they can happen and probably 90 per cent of the team have had some injury during the season, so unfortunately for me it didn't come at a good time but I'm back and I'm sure I will be at the same level that I was before."
Of course, despite the massive amount of good will Lucas has amassed in his time on Merseyside, Liverpool fans will want his focus to be solely on the remaining Premier League fixtures and the player himself has the good sense to realise that his only chance of wearing the yellow jersey in the summer tournament is to break back into Brendan Rodgers' side and play out of his skin. This can only be a good thing for the club which is in its lofty league position in spite of the comparative shallowness of the squad. Options are always a good thing in football and a fit and motivated Lucas Leiva is a very fine option indeed.
Having completed 90 minutes in the U21 victory over West Ham on Friday night, Lucas feels that he is ready to step up and challenge for a starting position once more. He came through that first test relatively unscathed and were Liverpool to find themselves ahead towards the end of the game at Old Trafford, one can imagine that a cameo for the Brazilian might be in the manager's mind. Lucas, a man whose mental fortitude and almost belligerent positivity could never be questioned, certainly hopes so.
"It was really good for me to get going again and try to improve my fitness," he enthused. "I was lucky that I wasn't out for a long time and I'm now looking forward to first-team action. Hopefully I'll be able to help the team again for the next 10 games because we know how important they are. I felt really good after the game and I'm looking forward to the next two months."
As a man who's gone to bat for the genial midfielder over the years when others preferred to flay him verbally, this scribbler is hopeful that Lucas can come in and be an integral part of a magnificent final push to accrue as many of the 30 remaining points as possible. He is an admirable man with far more about him as a footballer than he is given credit for and even his greatest detractors could hardly begrudge him the chance to be a part of the World Cup in his homeland. He deserves good things, does Lucas Leiva, but even he will understand when I insist that Liverpool Football Club deserves them more, whether he succeeds in being a part of the run-in or not.