Is Luiz the new Lucio?
Is David Luiz destined to be a pillar of the defence and a leader of men for club and country? With their latest Brazilian acquisition, have Chelsea signed the new Lucio?
There are clear similarities, not all of them complementary.
Luiz, already in Portugal with Benfica, first appeared on the radar screen of the average Brazilian fan during a disastrous World Youth Cup campaign in Canada in 2007, mixing up some slipshod defending with disciplinary problems.
It was all slightly reminiscent of Lucio's introduction to the great Brazilian public at the 2000 Olympics. With time running out and the team needing a goal to force extra time against Cameroon, Lucio led the charge out of defence. He was in a good position on the edge of the area and expected to receive a return pass from midfielder Roger. It did not come. Instead, Roger dwelt on the ball and was fouled. Before the free-kick could be taken, Lucio charged furiously over to his team-mate and headbutted him.
Luiz has made a big impact for Chelsea. Photo: PA
Ronaldinho scored from the free-kick and Brazil forced extra-time but it was only a temporary reprieve. Despite being down to nine men, Cameroon scored a golden goal and took another step on the way to winning the gold medal. In the long run, though, Brazil had not so much lost a title as gained a top-class centre-back.
A couple of months later, Lucio was given his senior debut, thrown into the deep end in a World Cup qualifier at home to Colombia. I was in the stadium in Sao Paulo that day and vividly recall being especially curious about the performance of this new centre-back. Brazil were struggling and short of confidence, while visiting striker Juan Pablo Angel was in good form. How would this explosive youngster cope?
There was no need to worry. Lucio was quick across the ground, while firm but controlled in the tackle. He also came close to scoring from a corner. The home crowd spent most of the match booing their own team but Lucio did not let the atmosphere affect him, keeping his concentration to the end. His senior career began with a win, too, as defensive partner Roque Junior headed home the only goal deep into stoppage time.
Before long, Lucio was Brazil's number one centre-back. There were slips - such as the one that let Michael Owen in for the opening goal of the 2002 World Cup quarter-final against England. But even Bobby Moore made the occasional error. Game in, game out, Lucio was the rock of his country's defence. Comfortable bringing the ball out, he was also excellent at linking the team together. Indeed, his passing was often more positive than that of the midfielders in front of him. Crucially, with his aggression under control, he seemed to spread certainty through the ranks that Brazil would prevail in the end.
Might Luiz mature into a figure of comparable importance?
He would seem to have similar leadership potential. He comes across in interviews as bright, serious and a team player, the type of person who seeks to set an example on and off the field. He would also seem to possess more natural talent on the ball than Lucio. Luiz's goal against Manchester United was a moment of pure class.
Where Luiz loses out, perhaps, is in terms of defensive ability. Lucio's early impetuosity can be put down to an excess of youthful enthusiasm. In the case of Luiz, it is possible that his tendency to commit reckless tackles has a more fundamental cause. As a teenager, Luiz was released by Sao Paulo because they considered him too small for the position. Lack of height is clearly no longer a problem but sometimes players who experience a spurt of growth suffer a loss of balance.
Certainly, Luiz was thrown off balance last month by Karim Benzema when Brazil lost 1-0 to France. The Real Madrid striker was able to get behind his opponent, beat him for pace and in the air, and even slipped the ball through his legs inside the penalty area. The young Lucio looked instantly at home at senior level. The same has not always been true of Luiz. In the five friendlies he has played, he has had reason to be grateful for the covering work of his centre-back partner, the outstanding Thiago Silva.
Can Luiz become a regular for Brazil? Photo: Getty
That partnership might be broken now because Lucio has been recalled to the squad for this month's friendly against Scotland at the Emirates Stadium. Back in July, when he was first appointed coach, Mano Menezes made it clear that this was likely to happen. The old guard would be rested while new players were tested. Now, after a phase of experimentation, the priority is on building towards July's Copa America, the most important competitive matches in Brazil's calendar in the run-up to the next World Cup. That means, Maicon and Elano, as well as Lucio, are back in the squad.
Menezes is also aware that he is coming off two defeats. Before the France game, Brazil went down 1-0 to Argentina, when the defensive work of Luiz could again be faulted as Lionel Messi scored a late winner. For football coaches, the long term is always dependent on the short. Menezes will strengthen his own position - and have more opportunities for future experiments - if his side can brush Scotland aside and give a good account of themselves in the Copa America.
The safe choice, then, would be to pair Lucio with Silva, leaving Luiz on the bench. But come the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil will host, Lucio will be 36.
The future belongs to Luiz. But will 'the new Lucio' be able to defend as well as the old?
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) Surely my eyes were not lying when I was watching the 2007 Under-20 World Cup. Ever Banega was the best player on show for me. Is he still lauded back home given his resurgence of sorts at Valencia? Metronomic a la Xavi and breaking up play a la Nicky Butt, he had an engine on him, too. If there is one player I'd like to see fulfil his potential and early promise, it is Ever. Do you think he'll be able to move onwards and upwards now or is it another case of moving too early and being caught in the headlights?
A) I'm a huge fan, too. I first saw him in qualifying for that tournament, in the South American Under-20s at the start of 2007. He was in my notebook within the first 10 seconds of his opening game. Then he won the Libertadores with Boca Juniors that year playing the holding role - a tribute to his versatility. He did move very early - perhaps his first experiences in Spain reveal that it was too early - but he came out the other side a while back. Though he admits that his form has dipped a bit of late, I think he's here to stay. To my mind, Banega, rather than Cambiasso or Zanetti, was the unforgivable absentee from Argentina's World Cup squad. Banega has been in the side since the tournament in South Africa and seems to gel nicely with Messi, which could be the key partnership of the 2014 World Cup.