Lucas struggling for Liverpool future
Brendan Rodgers likes to spring a surprise in his team selection sometimes and with his options vastly increased by Liverpool's huge splurge in the summer transfer window, this season wasn't going to be any different.
It's fair to say he caught most fans off guard by choosing Lucas Leiva for the opening game against Southampton.
This is going to be a long and arduous season for the Reds. Choices have to be made in keeping with the opposition's strengths, your own squad's fitness and how many games have been played in a week. In this instance a player that would not initially seem to have a long-term future at Anfield appears to have been picked because the opposition were not seen as much of a threat.
Lucas has talent for protecting a defence, generally for spoiling opponents' attacks and breaking up play before quietly and methodically supplying short passes to those in red who can create and make a real difference. It seemed odd to choose such a player for a home match against a club with so many new faces and regarded unfavourably.
Perhaps Rodgers was prescient and knew the Saints would not be the rollover everyone else thought? Or might it be that selecting Lucas actually gave the visitors a helping hand as it meant one less attacking option to worry about?
Traditionally a club tries to pick a similar team for the opening league game before that, in the final preseason outing. When that outing sees an impressive 4-0 win against Borussia Dortmund you are doubly sure that is the beginning 11. True, the Germans were lacklustre on the day but still capable of beating Bayern Munich a few days later.
Emre Can lost his place in the shuffle, and though not an attacking figure per se certainly is one more capable of joining in and offering an alternate threat and greater industry. That would have helped more, as Joe Allen proved when he replaced Lucas on the hour mark when Southampton were already level 1-1 and beginning to get on top.
Last season Rodgers' hand was somewhat forced by the immense form of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Both strikers were scoring freely so the manager dared not drop either. Two strikers became the norm and that obviously loses a place in midfield. Since Steven Gerrard is the captain and was winning numerous plaudits for his deeper role in the team that meant Lucas missing the cut.
Fitness did not help his cause either, unluckily becoming injured again after being rushed on as a sub against Aston Villa and making an immediate difference to Liverpool's previously poor performance that night. He then had to sit and watch for the most part as the Reds racked up an impressive 11-game winning streak without him, bar the odd sub appearance.
His display against Southampton on Sunday was not good, hence the substitution. When a player like Lucas is selected you know what's required and that is for the opponents to be hassled and play broken up. When that does not happen, or on other occasions when the other side doesn't even want to come forward, he becomes a waste of a shirt.
Which is a pity, as no rational supporter ever wants to criticise the likeable Brazilian. He has had more than his fair share of that, going back to the day he was jeered on to the pitch by a loathsome few. It doesn't matter if it was the manager Rafa Benitez's decision to bring him on that was being jeered, it simply isn't done. United fans were similarly appalled recently when some of their number turned on Marouane Fellaini, and rightly so. These lads are doing their best, so what use is jeering them?
Since then Lucas has become something of a pet for some fans, whether through Benitez worship or just old-fashioned fairness and admiration for the underdog. In the role he has usually been given, not one he was bought for originally, he found himself overshadowed by arguably the world's best operator in that position -- Javier Mascherano.
His awesome performances for Argentina in the last World Cup surprised no Liverpool supporter; they were well aware of that defensive excellence and relentless pursuit of opponents. That was the standard Lucas was judged by and was never going to match. Even Gerrard cannot even begin to get to that level, though there were plenty of admirers last season claiming he did so.
When Henderson was suspended last season for the run-in, Rodgers chose to simply select the Brazilian in his place. That's not what he does nor is he capable of doing it, and it was reflected in the team's performances that sadly lost them control of their title destiny. He lasted an hour Chelsea, when again things clearly weren't working.
If Rodgers can bring in another striker before September 1, chances are Lucas will have even fewer chances to play. There have been rumours of a move to Napoli, though that may just be the usual transfer reporting of two and two equalling four. Benitez and Lucas seem somehow inextricably linked now; criticism of one almost automatically being seen as criticism of the other.
It's always been difficult to stand in that particular no man's land. Lucas is one of the sweetest lads in the squad, but there comes a time when the truth has to be faced. Liverpool are currently groaning under the weight of midfield players, and you cannot keep a good player at the club just for a handful of appearances.
That said, it isn't really the likes of Southampton at home where you'd expect to see him play anyway. Two difficult away games lie ahead of Liverpool, at Manchester City and then Tottenham. The team will certainly come under more sustained fire than was expected on the opening day and someone in the defensive midfield mould could prove useful and effective.
Judging by his first performance, Lucas may not even have that role for long, although few covered themselves in glory on a day of struggle. Chances are Brendan Rodgers' next two selections will be just as intriguing as his first.