It was the moment that got it all started. With time running out, substitute Oliver Burke sped down the right, and with Marcel Schmelzer retreating, he fired in a fizzing, low cross. Ghosting into the gap between Marc Bartra and the retreating Sebastian Rode to smash the ball into the top of the net, past goalkeeper Roman Burki, was his fellow substitute Naby Keita.
That dramatic end to the first top-flight match at Red Bull Arena got RB Leipzig up and running in the Bundesliga. At the time, Keita’s winner against Borussia Dortmund in just the second match of the season felt like it might be a campaign highlight. In retrospect, it barely even hinted at what Leipzig, and Keita, would go on to achieve.
That six-minute cameo from the Guinea midfielder was his Bundesliga debut for the club, having arrived from Red Bull Salzburg earlier that summer, but the uninitiated would soon find out Keita was no late-impact fox in the box. On the contrary. He was a player Leipzig would go on to build their extraordinary season around.
Many are still learning about Keita. Incorrectly billed as a purely defensive midfielder when Liverpool began their chase for him earlier in 2017, his full palette is becoming clearer to a wider audience as people figure out why Reds boss Jurgen Klopp was so desperate to get him. Keita can excel in every area; he can tackle and screen, yet he can also find the passes to unpick a defence and conjure an accomplished finish himself.
Leipzig, trying to cope with the dual difficulties of managing a Champions League campaign and a Dortmund side that has started with considerably more rhythm than last term, need Keita at his best as they prepare to visit Signal Iduna Park on Saturday. It was a fixture fraught with difficulty on and off the pitch for Leipzig back in February, as per the Guardian.
Quite whether Keita is in the fettle to do that is open to question. Leipzig’s fans have, frankly, been spoiled by his level of consistency since his arrival, but if there is a hint of second-season syndrome, some among their number believe it has a lot to do with their key midfielder’s ups and downs in the opening weeks of the campaign.
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“He played really well in the first few matches,” Simon Fries told Bleacher Report. “He did his usual excellent dribbling and was good for the team. He makes the difference. Unfortunately, he got a red card against Borussia Monchengladbach. Then he was injured in his first CL match [against AS Monaco], and then the one against Besiktas was not his best match.”
Keita could have easily seen red again at the Vodafone Arena too had Sergei Karasev not been so lenient, with Fries describing the referee as “gracious.”
His fellow Leipzig supporter Benjamin Heine concurs, with the added focus on Keita clear. “The opponents know about his quality now,” he told Bleacher Report. “So he loses his temper very quickly and can get carried away, which doesn’t do him or the team any good.”
While Keita is conscious of the importance of his role, he has not quite hit the heights of last season. “All in all, he is not as good as he was last year,” said Fries. “Yet.”
It’s an impression that is echoed among Bundesliga fans—and from the perspective of Saturday’s opponents, as The Yellow Wall podcast host Stefan Buczko told Bleacher Report: “Keita has been far less influential for Leipzig than last season thus far. Other than his wonder strike against Hamburg, there aren’t too many positive actions that spring to mind. On the contrary, it looks as though he has lost self-control.”
As Buczko pointed out, Keita followed his red card against Gladbach and lucky escape at Besiktas with another sending off in a recent World Cup qualifier after opening the score for Guinea against Tunisia. “It’s a worrying trend,” Buczko said.
There is no panic, though. Leipzig’s supporters will give Keita the time to rediscover his best, with confirmation of his move to Liverpool generally met with understanding rather than opprobrium.
“I’m glad about it,” Fries said. “It was clear that he would go next year, and [by agreeing the deal early], we get way more money. I think Keita is a loss for Leipzig, but Liverpool is his dream club, and I respect this.”
Heine added that the Reds’ pursuit and eventual sealing of such a big deal is, in fact, a huge compliment to the club, saying: “It’s great that Jurgen Klopp has done everything to get Naby to Liverpool.”
They expect that the big occasion might bring the best out of Keita on Saturday. “My feeling tells me that he will deliver a really good game because he wants to give back to the club and us fans,” Heine said.
That would be making good on the promise the 22-year-old made in his statement to Liverpool’s official website announcing his transfer next summer, when he promised to give everything “until the final whistle in my final appearance” (via Chris Bascombe of the Daily Telegraph).
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“I expect that he will play as well as he did against HSV,” Fries said. “With Dortmund on the top of the table right now, hopefully Keita can score like last year or provide an assist. I think we’ll play in a more counter-attacking way against BVB, so we need Keita in pressing and in giving the ball quickly to our fast strikers.”
That is exactly the role in which Dortmund fear him. “Keita is lethal in midfield,” Buczko warned. “Because he can find solutions under pressure, and BVB can be quickly exposed once they lose a battle in central midfield. Right now, there is little to suggest that Dortmund have the tools to stop Keita if he is on a roll—nor that [manager Peter] Bosz would adjust his tactical approach to minimise his threat.”
Keita’s Leipzig swansong won’t be defined solely by Saturday’s game. “Whether we win or draw, he will be very important to us, and he will be very important this year, whether in the Champions League, DFB-Pokal or in the Bundesliga,” Leipzig supporter Sebastian Dorenburg said.
As with so many of the other headline stars looking to influence the upcoming big games, Keita will have to dig deep to produce something special after a long week of international action. What is clear is after February’s ordeal, there are few places Leipzig fans would find sweeter for him to hit the heights once again.