by Tim Treacy

A seemingly innocuous challenge by Lucas Leiva on Chelsea’s Juan Mata during the Carling Cup quarter-final match at Stamford Bridge has ruled the Liverpool midfielder out of action until next summer with an ACL injury to his left knee.

The once much maligned Lucas, has become an enforcer in Liverpool’s midfield over the past two years, and statistics show that over the past 18 months, he has outperformed his European peers and become, arguably, the best defensive midfielder in Europe. He was named Brazilian Footballer of the year for 2006, Liverpool’s young player of the year for 2010, and Liverpool’s player of the year for 2010/11. In 2010/11 Lucas made more tackles than any other player in the top five leagues in Europe, this season he had had leads the charts again having had more successful tackles than any other player in the Premier League with a 76% success rate.

A £5M buy by Rafa Benitez in 2007 from Grêmio, Lucas had a torrid start to his Liverpool career, with the vast majority of fans not convinced by his early performances. Fans’ feelings reached boiling point during the 2008/09 season where in consecutive games Lucas gave away a last minute penalty against Wigan with a clumsy, needless challenge and he then got sent off a week later against Everton in the Merseyside derby. Things then got worse for Lucas when he was booed by the Anfield faithful who had turned their back on him most notably against Fulham that same season. It seemed the only person that believed in Lucas’ ability was Rafa Benitez when he stated after the Fulham game that “people just don’t know how good Lucas is” and he warned the booing Liverpool fans that Lucas has what it takes to be the very best and that Lucas will prove all his doubters wrong–Benitez could not have been more correct.

Lucas then knuckled down, not letting the concerns of the fans get him down, but rather it spurred him on, and showing his true character, he worked furiously on his physique in the gym putting on a rumored 25lbs in muscle between 2009 and 2010. Now two years later, he could not be held in such a different regard by Liverpool fans. Lucas would easily fetch a fee of £25M or more in today’s transfer market and many fans now wear his name on their jerseys with pride.

At Chelsea two weeks ago, Lucas was the stand out performer in midfield. He bossed the game from start to finish never allowing Chelsea to settle on the ball. Against Manchester City this past weekend, he was world class and he outclassed, outmuscled, and outplayed their expensively assembled midfield. He made £25M Yaya Toure and £18M Gareth Barry look like normal, mediocre players. Physically, Lucas was punching above his weight against both Toure and Barry, yet not only did he keep them in check, he also reduced David Silva to the role of passenger for most of the game, frustrating the life out of a player who many believe is the best in the Premier League right now. Up until his injury at Chelsea, Lucas was again the general in midfield and he even threw a few tackles into Fernando Torres for good measure, something which was met with loud approving cheers from the travelling Anfield faithful. Lucas has become a midfield enforcer of world class ability, and he was getting better with every single game this season. His season ending injury is a devastating blow to him and Liverpool.

So what now for The Reds? I had very much expected Liverpool to find some cover for Lucas this coming January even before this injury. Jay Spearing is a good deputy but his lack of a physical presence on the park could mean that he could get physically outmuscled by some of the stronger teams. For example, I don’t think Spearing has it in him to do to Toure, Barry, and Silva what Lucas did to them. However, Spearing did get a great run of games when Dalglish took over last January, and he received and signed a contract extension from the Liverpool manager last term. This highlights the fact that Dalglish has great faith in Spearing and it could be the opportunity Spearing has so desperately wanted to prove himself over the long-term in the side. If you can measure a player on hunger alone, Spearing will fill the role very well and many of his strengths are outlined here by fellow Red Letter blogger, Kevin Koczwara.

I do not at all expect Liverpool to splash the cash on a defensive midfielder this coming transfer window but Seydou Keita has been rumored to be attracting some attention from Liverpool for a few months now and at 31 years old, and clearly surplus to requirements at Barcelona, he would be a fantastic loan singing in January. There are two ways I see Liverpool moving forward here. Either Liverpool sign an experienced player like Keita for very little, or even better they sign him or a similar player on loan, or they simply stick with Spearing in that defensive-breaking-up-the-opposition-play role until Lucas returns.

Let’s not forget that both Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam are also very capable in playing the defensive midfield role too. If Liverpool were really stuck for a player in that role, and I mean really stuck, I imagine even Daniel Agger would excel there. He has the physicality, awareness, and ball skills required of the position but playing him there would only ever be under exceptional circumstances such as Liverpool suffering one or two more serious long-tem injuries to its midfielders.

Time will only tell what Dalglish decides to do but there is no denying that losing Lucas through injury for the season is a hammer blow to Liverpool’s aspirations for silverware and finishing in the top four.

I expect Comolli and Dalglish to very astute in the coming transfer window, as those 31 days of transfer dealings for Liverpool could be the difference between Champions League or Eupora league qualification, or cup winners or nowhere semifinalists–hopefully it’s the former in both scenarios.