Midfielder talks about his debt to Liverpool, the moment he thought his career was over and his return to the Brazil squad
Lucas Leiva was driving when his mobile suddenly started buzzing with an alarming frequency. With his wife expecting the couple's second child imminently, the Liverpool midfielder pulled over to see whether she had indeed gone into labour.
She had not. The messages flooding into his phone were from fellow professionals, friends and family, congratulating him on his return to the Brazil squad after a two-year absence. There had been times Lucas thought the moment would never come.
Lucas's Liverpool career has already included more highs and lows than most players experience in their whole careers. He arrived from Grêmio in 2007 but initially struggled and was booed by his own fans in a home game against Fulham the following year. Then came the haircut, the resurrection and, with that, the adulation. Then, finally and disruptively, came the injuries. In November 2011, at a time when he had more caps for Brazil than Neymar, he tore a cruciate ligament in a League Cup tie at Chelsea and missed the rest of that season.
Upon his return, in August last year, he tore a hamstring during the warm-up before a league game against the same opponents. Amazingly he still tried to play but lasted only five minutes before being replaced by Jonjo Shelvey. The injury left him depressed and fearing for his career. "I had to search really deep for some strength because there were a couple of days I could barely move and the doctors did not even allow me to hold my baby son," he says.
But it was also during that time that his fondness for his club, who face Newcastle United in Saturday's lunchtime kick-off, reached a new level. "The club was amazing to me, supporters met me on the street and told me that things were going to be OK. And all the support I received then is the reason why I don't really see myself playing for any other club if I have the choice. I'd love to have my testimonial at Anfield.
"I have played under four managers at Liverpool and I am grateful for everything they have taught me," he continues. "The thing with Brendan [Rodgers] is that he was here during the worst time of my career. His encouragement was crucial for me to come back from a bad place."
Rodgers was not the only person at the club who supported Lucas during those dark days. The England captain, Steven Gerrard, was another. "When I was injured he sat down to talk to me a couple of times and was very encouraging," Lucas says. "He is a vital player for this club. He is a legend at Liverpool and it is easy to see why he is also the England captain. He is also not as serious as people seem to think and I'm delighted to be playing alongside him."
Liverpool have had their best start to a season since 2008-09 and take on Newcastle second in the table, level on points with Arsenal at the top. Lucas is encouraged but not carried away. "Look, we have obviously got some encouraging results from the first games and no one will complain about being top of the table. But we would be silly to get too excited after seven games.
"The Premiership is a long and tough journey and we just have to look at our defeat [at home] to Southampton to see that. But I'll give you one thing: maybe we would have drawn that game against Stoke last season [they won 1-0 after a late penalty save by Simon Mignolet]. There's a feeling that a couple of things went our way [this time round]. But ask me again how I feel in January, because that's when we will really know what we can achieve this season."
A potential title charge has been mentioned but Lucas, for the time being, wants to focus on a place in the top four. "I don't see why we should get ahead of ourselves. The race for the top four will be extremely close this year and I still think we are underdogs, given how much money some of our opponents have invested. We also lost some important players like [Pepe Reina] and have already had injuries to players such as Philippe [Coutinho]."
Lucas's caution is down to having seen green shoots fade away before. He is now Liverpool's third-longest serving player behind Gerrard and Daniel Agger and when he arrived at the club they had just played in a second Champions League final in three seasons. Since 2009, Lucas and his team-mates' only experience of those European nights have come from the TV or game consoles. That hurts.
"Liverpool are still a massive institution in English and European football and we need to get back into the Champions League. Those nights are unforgettable for players and supporters. It's about time we all felt that buzz again," he says. Keeping Luis Suárez last summer was key for the club's ambitions and Lucas, who is a close friend of the Uruguayan, is understandably delighted that his team-mate stayed. "Luis is one hell of a player and I know him well enough to say that maybe his competitiveness sometimes comes out too strong. But he's been one of the best players in the Premiership since he arrived, so it's great that he stayed with us."
It seems extraordinary that Lucas is still only 26. Brazilian journalists often joke that he has been a veteran since his youth academy days and there is some truth in that. When he signed for Liverpool he had just become the youngest ever winner of the Bola de Ouro, Brazil's version of the Ballon d'Or. His name pops up on a list alongside others such as Zico, Falcão and Ronaldinho. Back then, when Rafael Benítez paid £5m for Lucas, he was an attacking midfielder with an eye for goal.
In England, however, he was immediately switched to a more defensive role by Benítez as a way into the Liverpool team. "Well, Liverpool had Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso ahead of me in the pecking order. In football and in life you have to adapt to survive," he says.
Since then, the team have gone through a lot of changes, including the retirement of Jamie Carragher. By the time Carragher called it a day Lucas had developed a way to understand the defender's thick scouse accent and now enjoys watching his former team-mate working as a pundit on TV. "I think he's been very comfortable and funny. It didn't surprise me he could talk about the game, but he really adapted fast to it. It means we've got a good match for [his fellow Sky pundit] Gary Neville now."
The return to the Brazil squad for the matches against South Korea and Zambia last week was confirmation that Lucas has rediscovered some of his best form. Before the surprise call-up the Selecão coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, checked with an old friend from his Stamford Bridge days as to whether the midfielder was ready to return. Rodgers, who worked with Scolari at Chelsea, told the Brazil manager that Lucas was ready. "The call-up came out of the blue," he says. "It's not that I had given up my dream to play in a World Cup at home for Brazil but it was just that time was running out, with every game I wasn't picked for."
Lucas flew back to England from Beijing on Wednesday having been praised in the Brazilian press for his performance against Zambia alongside his fellow Premiership players Paulinho, David Luiz and Ramires.
Scolari said he had played well and selecting the Liverpool player ahead of the success story of the recent Confederations Cup, Luiz Gustavo, was encouraging. "Lucas plays regularly in the Premiership and has been together with many of the Selecão players here," Scolari said. "He is tactically sound and his protection of the back four is very important in the kind of football I like my teams playing."
It sounds as if Lucas may well become the first Liverpool player to represent Brazil at a World Cup, which would be a truly special moment for the Leiva family as Lucas's uncle, João Leiva, was part of the Brazil 1974 squad which made it to the last four. "My grandma would be so proud," says Lucas. "It's not bad to have had a son and grandson playing in a World Cup."
Before that, the 22-times capped midfielder can achieve another milestone, to become the Brazilian with the most Premier League games to his name. He is currently 15 behind Gilberto Silva, who played 170 for Arsenal. "Yes, that would be nice but Gilberto won the league twice, didn't he?" Lucas says. "Much as I am honoured to have established myself in England, it's the trophies that will make people remember you."