Point to prove

Lucas Leiva exclusively tells Peter Fraser about living with criticism, a career at Liverpool and Sunday's showdown with Manchester United

Lucas: Room for improvement

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"I don't know why the criticism started with me, but some people just do not like me."

Lucas Leiva

Quotes of the week

It is fair to say that the 23-year-old, a 2007 signing from Gremio, does not bask in widespread critical acclaim in the football world, despite becoming a regular in the plans of manager Rafa Benitez this season after Xabi Alonso decided to become a Galactico at Real Madrid last summer.

Having been forced to adapt to a more defensive style since his switch from Brazil almost three years ago, Lucas now feels settled in the Premier League and, as has been the case with most 'big games' in the current campaign, he is expected to partner Javier Mascherano in the engine room for Sunday's vitally-important meeting with fierce foes Manchester United.

However, ahead of kick-off at Old Trafford, Lucas knows that his regularity in Liverpool's starting line-up will not guarantee popularity. It could be thought that he has become an easy target, a young, foreign player, for humbugs in his club's below-par season, but then his hot-and-cold performance against Lille on Thursday also demonstrated why he can prove a frustrating character.

When it is implied that he has had his critics in the past, he immediately responds: "I still have and to be honest I think I will have here forever. I don't think that the people will turn in my way, but I just try to be focused in my job and try to improve all the time and play for the people who like me.

"I don't know why the criticism started with me, but some people just do not like me. I don't know why.

"I never had this before (in my career) so it is the first time it happened and now I am really positive and just try to concentrate on my job."

Some may feel sympathy for Lucas, but he is aware that criticism and learning from lessons is a part of football, a part of growing up. After moving from South America when only just out of his teenage years, he knows that he has changed and that there is still room for progress.

"I was really young when I came here, I was 20," the man from Dourados explains as our interview continues at Liverpool's Melwood training ground on Tuesday. "Now I am a bit older and there are still a lot of things to improve. But I am still young, so I just have to keep going.

"My first season was more difficult because I had to adapt quickly to the style and also the tempo of the game. I am completely settled now in the Premier League, so I am trying to improve all the time and I am doing quite well this season. Of course we have to improve and as a team we can always improve more, so to just keep going is the best way to change things."

Confidence

Familiarising himself with off-field life on Merseyside was also an issue. Lucas, who has two friends from Brazil sitting in the background at our interview as part of their visit to England, admits homesickness was a factor, however, he is now content.

"We miss our family, but my life in Liverpool is really quiet," he says. "I don't go out too much. I like the life I have here, it is quiet and calm. Sometimes of course the criticism makes you a bit disappointed but, anyway, you have to keep going.

"Liverpool is a good city, but not so big. The city where I lived before was two million people, so here is quite small compared to there, but we have some options like restaurants and shops. I am okay here."

Benitez has always been a strong supporter of Lucas, once accusing critics of a lack of appreciation with the words, 'people just don't know how good Lucas is' and the midfielder is determined to return the favour amid rumours his manager could be considering quitting in May.

"He tries to support me and give me confidence," Lucas continues. "He has tried to give confidence for everyone, not just me, and I try to repay this in the performance and try to work hard. But we know that sometimes the people criticise me or him and this is a part of the life in football and you have to accept it and just carry on."

The reason Benitez and Liverpool are under pressure is simple. The Reds have endured a horribly disappointing season and the Europa League represents their only remaining chance for silverware, while they travel to league leaders United desperately hoping to keep alive hopes of a place in the league's top four and a resulting spot in the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League.

"We have made some mistakes, that is clear," reflects Lucas. "I think it will be a difficult race until the end of the season. Manchester City, Tottenham and Aston Villa are in good form at the moment, so we just have to wait and do our best. Winning games is the only way to be in the top four as soon as possible. For sure, City and Tottenham will lose points and if we can win every game it will be much better."

If Liverpool are to make a 100 per cent finish to their league season, they will need to take three points from the irrepressible Wayne Rooney et al on Sunday. It would be an understatement to say that represents a tough task, but, having played in his side's famous 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 2009, Lucas has confidence.

"I played 90 minutes in that game," he remembers. "We played really well and 4-1 is a result that you do not normally expect in games like this.

"Of course we know it (the match) is going to be difficult. Right now Rooney is playing really well. At the moment he and (Lionel) Messi are the best players in the world. I would say in England, Rooney is the best player, for sure. He is scoring a lot of goals and helps the team a lot. We have to be careful, but I think that other players give him a chance to score as well. United have a really good squad, so we have to go there and think positive and think about winning."

Lucas was speaking on behalf of Thomas Cook Sport, official travel partner of Liverpool FC. For more information about match breaks and World Cup packages, visit www.thomascooksport.com or call 0208 739 2360.

Should Lucas Leiva start against Manchester United?

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