Is Lucas, Hidden Star of Monday Night's Show, Now Better (for us) than Mascherano?
I'm stating the obvious to say Suarez and Maxi were eye-catching at ths sharp end of things on Monday.
What's less apparent is that their fine work obscured the real star of the show: Lucas.
Look again at the tape, Reds fans - you owe watching that game again to yourself anyway, after suffering through half a season of Hodgson's Tripe (TM).
What you'll see on replay is FOUR - count 'em - defence splitters from our number 21.
First, he made the critical incisive pass for the first goal, cutting out Hughes and sending Suarez off the races to set up the first goal.
Next, he played a ball from the the halfway line over the top for Johnson, who then picked out Maxi at the back post.
Next, he picked out Flanagan from halfway, who if he hadn't had a crisis of confidence you forgive a 18 year old for, was one on one with Schwarzer, with support looming to his right at the back post.
Finally, he picked out Meireles with a chipped ball over the top, who also had a one on one with Schwarzer but fluffed his lines.
How's that for four peaches of passes in 31 minutes!
If a big name "creative" midfielder, like Gerrard, Fabregas, Scholes or Wilshire had played four passes like that in a game, we wouldn't hear the end of it for weeks.
But this has come from a notionally 'defensive' player. But to compare Lucas to counterparts in his position, you won't see four passes like that a season from a Mikel, Ramirez, De Jong, Fletcher or Song.
Nor, to look at the recent exemplars of his position, would you have seen four a season from Macherano, Keane, Vieira or Makelele. And there's the rub.
Because Lucas didn't arrive in England as a defensive midfielder. He came here a slighter, more creative force.
He's had to build his body and understanding to adapt to the demands of a new position in a new country. And now we are seeing the results of his hard work and application.
This season (and to a lesser extent, last) Lucas has started to garner the respect he deserves for doing the basics of football in central midfield very, very well on a consistent basis.
He now ticks all the right boxes of a well-rounded defensive midfielder; the essentials to keeping a side ticking over nicely in central midfield.
He circulates the short, simpler ball cleanly and quickly; he energetically supports the ball, consitently offering short simple options; he now has excellent defensive positioning; and he shows the judgment to always commit to necessary challenges, while not often overcommitting to unnecessary challenges.
The last two points are perhaps where he has improved most.
In fitting the bill, Lucas has gone a very long way to making himself an essential feature of our side.
If he starts to more regularly meld the central midfield basics he now has down pat, with the passing we saw at Craven Cottage, we have some player on our hands.
After all, the lad's just 24. We might yet see goals from him to boot!
Mind, he probably ought ot have got one the other night, if Shelvey hadn't gone himself late on.
Let's put the Lucas question in more practical terms: would you swap him for Mascherano now? I wouldn't.
I reckon Macherano can still do the defensive side better than Lucas can, and can nullify attackers playing "in the hole" better than Lucas can.
Those skills are particularly valuable in the big games of the latter stages of the Champions League, so Mascherano is at the right club.
But the gap between their defensive skills is not so large now. And Lucas offers a better balance for a team that's primary focus is getting back INTO the Champions League and trying to work towards winning the Premier League.
Too many home draws cost us a title two years ago. A different balance in central midfield for some of those games might have got us over the line.
Not that I particularly blame Rafa for that.
Perhaps if Rafa had got the Barry he preferred, rather than the Keane he saw as a luxury, we'd have got there.
Following upon, Lucas also demonstrates Rafa is a much underappreciated developmental manager.
We wouldn't have the Lucas of today without the steadfast faith of the man who brought him here and trusted his qualities despite the naysayers in the stands and online.
Looking among many other examples - Torres, the central defender he made of Carragher, the advanced attacker he made of Gerrard, plus the restructuring of the Academy - you can only hope the owners and Comolli give him his due reward and return him to the manager's seat once Kenny gets his own due reward.