x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Meireles living in the shadows

Covered in tattoos, yet uneasy under the spotlight, Raul Meireles, the Liverpool midfielder, is a man of contradictions.

We are sat outside the entrance of one of the principal tourist traps at Liverpool's Albert Docks. As late morning busies into lunchtime, the stylishly attired Liverpool midfielder thoughtfully answers an hour's worth of questions. Not a single supporter from this football-obsessed city sidles up to request an autograph or photo.

Eschewing the modern footballer's favoured mode of transport a couple of weeks back, the World Cup goalscorer took his six-year-old daughter, Lara, on the fast train to London. Not one passenger recognised him, and Raul Meireles loves it this way.

"I sat there with my daughter and nothing," he said, breaking into a grin. "It's fantastic. In Portugal if I took the train to Lisbon people would be saying 'Meireles, in a train? What is this?'"

He is a man of contradictions, Roy Hodgson's most expensive signing of a turbulent summer. Meireles revels in new-found anonymity yet chose to live in the heart of this port city - "where I can see the river and a lot of people".

He is a product of the elegant Portuguese school of football, yet he labels himself "non-technical" and professes his love for a Premier League tackle. He describes himself as shy and says he hates being interviewed, yet is a considered, intelligent subject quick with self-deprecating humour.

"I don't like them because I'm quiet," he said. "I don't like that people know things about me. I like to be with my wife, to be reserved, to do what I have to do like a normal person. I like to play football. Only that. I don't like to be a Ronaldo or a Beckham, I'm not like that."

With Meireles, football forced itself upon him rather than himself upon it. His father, a physiotherapist at Boavista, the second team in the city of Porto but a top-flight Portuguese side, sent the six-year-old Raul to the club's academy "so I would not be on the street and do something bad. I didn't know what a ball was. I'd never seen a football game".

He enjoyed the evening and weekend sessions but did not imagine making a career from the sport until he won the European Under 16 Championship. Still, the youth international continued an apprenticeship in car electronics as a career insurance policy.

A year later he met Ivone at a teammate's party and began the sole relationship of his adult life. By 21, they were married and parents, and after a decade together Meireles lists his pastimes as follows: "I like to stroll, to see movies with my family. And I like to joke with my daughter."

And then there are the tattoos. The man who hates attention, who does not like to watch his own matches on television because he finds the way he runs odd, has almost the entirety of either arm covered in intricate designs. He has three stars and the numbers 14 and 16 (birthdays of Lara and his mother) inscribed on his neck, and a huge dragon on his back.

"I know it's unusual," said Meireles. "But it's like Martin [Skrtel] and [Daniel] Agger. I see them and they are quiet, they are reserved, but they also have tattoos. I like tattoos; it's a taste, you know."

Meireles has gone under the inky needle well over 50 times. The habit is shared with Ivone, beginning a year after they met.

"We did the same tattoo, on the same day, and then we don't stop," he said. "My wife has more tattoos than me; she has more time."

Their move to Liverpool was one that required little consideration. A key component of a Porto side that won four league titles in his six seasons there, Meireles's courtiers had included Juventus, Valencia and Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan before his hometown club accepted an initial €13 million (Dh66.6m) offer from Liverpool.

"It's the first time I've played outside of Portugal, a new adventure, so I'm happy," he said. "And I love this Anfield. For me it is unbelievable to play here and feel the supporters. And the Premier League is fantastic, I love the crowds and the way the game is played. It's so fast, never stops. And it's more competitive, and I like that.

"It's not a technical kind of football, but I like it. I'm not a technical player, I'd describe myself as a teamworker. I like to run and help the team. I like to go past players, I like to tackle.

"The English football is not so like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, but I like the way you have Stevie [Gerrard] playing: one, two touches … I like this football."

Meireles is pleased with how he has adapted to the Premier League, particularly since being moved to his preferred central role. The frustration has come from arriving at a Liverpool in the throes of a takeover battle and the team's travails at the wrong end of the division.

"It's a new situation for me because in Porto we always win, win, win. I never lost so many games as this year and I'm angry to be in this situation.

"Liverpool's a big club, accustomed to winning, and it's difficult to see one big club in this situation. But I see the quality of the players, and the work we do in the week, and sometimes I don't understand how we can be losing."

Liverpool travel to Bolton Wanderers today seeking to exit the relegation zone. Yet pointing to a tightly packed league table and the handover of corporate power, Meireles argues that Champions League qualification remains a realistic aim.

"I feel the change of atmosphere," he said. "In the last game against Blackburn it was unbelievable. The supporters were always with the team, but the last game I felt something different - the optimism. And we won. I need to win every game in Liverpool to fulfil these supporters. They deserve it."

If you don't mind, though, please hang back with the autograph requests.

sports@thenational.ae

The match-up

Key Battle
Gary Cahill v Fernando Torres
Torres, Liverpool’s prized striking asset, found form and a goal last week against Blackburn Rovers. That he keeps improving after poor early season displays is key to his club’s chances of climbing the table. Cahill, below, Bolton’s in demand centre-back, will relish the chance to demonstrate his rising stock.

Tactics
“Hoof!” was a cry heard by many an opposition fan at the Reebok Stadium in the past, as Bolton sent another long ball towards the opposition penalty box. They still play direct when needed but that is allied with crafty midfield play that can cause any team problems
Previous meetings
Liverpool have won their last seven league games against Bolton (2-0 at home and 3-2 away last season) and have only lost three times to their opponents in 22 Premier League meetings, with Bolton’s last win back in 2006 at home.

Probable line-ups
Bolton (4-4-2) Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson; Lee, Holden, Muamba, Petrov; Elmander, Davies
Liverpool (4-5-1) Reina; Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Konchesky; Lucas, Meireles, Gerrard, Cole, Maxi; Torres

Fact
• Johan Elmander has scored five Premier League goals this season – all away from home. In fact he has netted just once at home since signing for Bolton from French club Toulouse in 2008 and that was on his debut on the opening day of the Premier League season.