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Sep 26, 2013

Third time lucky for Leiva?

When Lucas Leiva arrives at the Brazilian team camp in Seoul next Monday for the friendly against South Korea, he will certainly be much more at ease than goalkeeper Victor, who featured for the first time in a Selecao call-up in the 15 games since Big Phil Scolari reclaimed the reins last year.

At 26, Leiva is somehow a veteran: With call-ups dating from 2006, he will now work under his third manager at the Selecao, hoping it is a lucky third time. And some help from lady luck will be quite appreciated. Despite wearing the yellow shirt in the Beijing Olympics with Dunga, Lucas didn't make the cut for the 2010 World Cup. When Mano Menezes took over and brought his former player at southern Brazilian side Gremio to anchor the midfield alongside Ramires, it seemed the Kop favourite was on course to emulate his uncle Joao Leiva, a Selecao player in the 1974 World Cup. "Then I had that horrendous knee injury in December 2011. It happened at a time when I was pretty much part of the whole rebuilding of the Selecao. I couldn't believe it", says Lucas, whose disbelief increased tenfold when an innocuous warm-up shot on goal before a game against Manchester City in August 2012 resulted in a muscle injury so severe that he feared for his career. Thus, Lucas can be forgiven for taking things slowly. It's been almost two years since his last outing for the national side and while he and Ramires ruled the roost before, the team now is bursting at the seams with midfield enforcers. "There (are) amazing guys around. (Former Bayern Munich midfielder) Luiz Gustavo was one of the Selecao's best players in the Confederations Cup, for example, and (Lazio's) Hernanes is another guy being regularly called up. I will need to do something special to get a place, but that motivates me rather than intimidates me," he explains. Lucas has never been a guy prone to self-doubt. He, after all, was the youngest player to win the Bola de Ouro, the most prestigious individual accolade in Brazilian football, in 2006, and showed some guts at Liverpool. Not only by joining a club not really known for a thriving tradition of Brazilian players, but by the way he stood firm when things went awry enough for Reds.

"I arrived as an attacking midfielder, but had to adapt to play at a more holding role, since the team had Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. That wasn't easy but it made things even more special when I ended up being voted, by the supporters, Liverpool's best player of the season in 2011," he remembers. While he is a key member of Brendan Rodgers' squad at Anfield, Leiva's return to the Selecao is a different matter. It will certainly help that he knows the main faces in the squad -- no surprise that team captain Thiago Silva was one of the colleagues sending congratulatory texts when Big Phil announced his squad for the upcoming friendly against South Korea and a bizarre game against Zambia in Beijing on October 15th.

"There are only a couple of games left before Scolari has to pick a squad for the World Cup and I have never worked with him before. So in many ways I'm a new guy. But also gives me a buzz. It feels like the first time I was called-up and I must say it is a relief that an opening has come, because the closer we get to the World Cup, the harder it will be for anybody to break into the group". Lucas is a typical Scolari player. His no-thrills style on the ball and tactical obedience could certainly endear him to the manager. He is also no party animal, and that earns brownie points with Big Phil. Squeezing into the First XI at the moment is a tough ordeal after Gustavo's blooming and Ramires offering versatility to work in holding and more attacking positions. "It won't be easy but I'd love to give Big Phil a headache. To think that at this time last year I actually feared for my career is surreal. I want to enjoy being back to the Selecao", he muses. But grandmother Laine would certainly enjoy it more if he regains his place in the team. After all, how many ladies in the world can gloat that a son and grandson played for Brazil in a World Cup?