LUCAS LEIVA is ready to step into the lion’s den and spearhead Brazil’s push for an historic triumph. The Liverpool midfielder is in Argentina preparing for the Copa America which gets underway next weekend.
It will be Lucas’ first senior tournament with the Samba stars who are gunning for an unprecedented hat-trick of South American titles.
Coach Mano Menezes’ young side have been unconvincing in their warm-up games and are guaranteed a red-hot reception in the backyard of their fiercest rivals.
But Lucas is confident they will rise to the challenge and is relishing the opportunity to showcase his development on the big stage.
“It’s my first official competition with Brazil and I can’t wait for it,” he said. “It means a lot – to play for Brazil is the highest target you can have.
“I know how difficult it is to get into this squad when you are competing against so many good players. It’s reward for what I’ve done for Liverpool and now I want to help Brazil do well.
“When you are playing in the country of your biggest rivals that makes it more difficult. I’m sure we will have more fans against us than for us.
“We know the people in Brazil love football so much and the expectation level is always really high. There will be a lot of pressure but I’m used to that from playing for Liverpool.
“It’s our first competition under the new manager. We have a very young team and are building for 2014. That’s the big target but when you go into any tournament like this you have to go into it focused purely on winning it.
“Brazil must always be one of the favourites to win and I want to help make history.”
The Copa America comes after a whirlwind few months for the 24-year-old.
The birth of his first son Pedro Lucas was followed by recognition that he has established himself as a key member of Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool side.
A new long term contract to keep him at Anfield was finalised before he was deservedly crowned the Reds’ player of the year.
His progress has also seen him hold down a regular spot in the Brazilian midfield alongside Chelsea’s Ramires.
Menezes, who was Lucas’ manager at Gremio prior to his £6million switch to Anfield in 2007, has entrusted him with the coveted No 5 shirt worn by the likes of Dunga and Mauro Silva.
“A lot of big players have worn that shirt,” he admitted.
“It is really important. In Brazil they think everything starts with the No 5.
“For me it’s just a pleasure to wear that shirt and have the opportunity to play for Brazil.
“The manager has known me since I was 18. He knows me well but there are no favours.
“Everyone in the squad deserves to be there because of the form they have produced for their clubs.
“I try to prove myself in every game and show that I’m capable of being in the national team. It will be great if I can achieve good things with Brazil.”
Menezes took over from Dunga last summer and is tasked with developing a side capable of winning the 2014 World Cup on home soil.
Brazil are a work in progress, highlighted by their two friendlies earlier this month when a goalless draw with Dirk Kuyt’s Holland was followed by a 1-0 win over Romania.
All eyes will be fixed on striking sensation Neymar. The exciting 19-year-old joined up with the squad on a high this week after firing Santos to glory in the final of the Copa Libertadores against Uruguayan outfit Penarol.
Neymar has been strongly linked with a bumper move to Chelsea or Real Madrid and Lucas is in no doubt about his talent.
“He’s a fantastic player and one of the biggest talents we have at the moment in Brazil,” Lucas said.
“We know Chelsea tried to sign him before but he decided to stay in Brazil. Neymar’s been doing really well in Brazil and I’m really looking forward to watching him over the next few years.
“In time I know he will come to Europe and play for a big team.”
Brazil start their campaign against Venezuela next Sunday and also face group games against Paraguay (July 9) and Ecuador (July 13). If Brazil are going to retain their grip on the trophy they are likely to face a semi-final clash with Luis Suarez’s Uruguay prior to a final showdown with arch rivals and pre-tournament favourites Argentina.
Lucas could find himself locking horns with Lionel Messi in Buenos Aires on July 24.
“Messi is the greatest player I’ve ever come up against,” he said.
“I played against him in the semis of the Olympics in China in 2008 and then when we played Argentina in a friendly last year he scored in the last minute. We know he’s in a very good moment and it’s hard to stop him.
“Argentina have the best player in the world and they are always really strong but Uruguay will also be tough. They did very well in the World Cup and have very good players like Luis.
“Luis and I have been talking about maybe facing each other in the quarter-final or semi-final. That would be a great occasion but hopefully Brazil will do better.
“If Brazil play against Argentina in the final then the world will stop to watch. The rivalry is massive.
“It will be a very good competition to watch and to play in. I can’t wait for it to start.”
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