The midfielder has been unable to find any sort of rhythm during his three years at Anfield due to injuries but there is no doubt about his talent.
The last time Chelsea visited Anfield it was Naby Keita who threw the party.
And in a certain style too.
His 20-yard howler, struck in front of a bewildered Kepa Arrizabalaga, set Liverpool on course for a crazy 5-3 victory over Londoners last July, a night few people in red will ever forget.
The Reds got their hands on the Premier League trophy that night, with Jurgen Klopp and his players enjoying a touching, if slightly odd, ceremony on the Kop. After 30 years, they were once again the best dogs in England.
Things have changed somewhat since then. It’s just March, but Klopp’s team know his reign as champion is almost over. A place in the top four is the height of their ambitions this season, and a loss to Chelsea on Thursday could even mean the end of those.
As for Keita, he finds himself in a familiar situation. Back from injury, back available and hoping to show the world what they can really do in a Liverpool shirt.
This is the Guinean international’s third season on Merseyside. The previous two brought fame and silverware; the Champions League in 2019, the Super Cup, the Club World Cup and the Premier League in 2020.
Keita has been overwhelmed when it comes to medals, there’s no doubt about it, but in terms of impact, real impact, the jury is still out. It feels like saying it every two months, to be honest, but it’s a big moment for the 26-year-old. His team needs him, and he needs to show he can answer it.
Remember, he is the third most expensive player in Liverpool history. Keita cost more than £ 50million ($ 73million) arriving from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2018, but it’s hard to say he justified the investment yet.
Availability was the main reason for this. Liverpool have played 148 games in all competitions since Keita signed, and they’ve only played in 72 of them. There were only 45 starts, and only 12 of them saw him complete 90 minutes.
In the Premier League, he has played 51 out of 102 games, down from just 31. He has never played more than four consecutive league games, his flow repeatedly interrupted by muscle problems.
“Its quality is undisputed,” said Christoph Freund, sporting director of the former club Keita in Salzburg. Goal. “But the injuries mean he hasn’t picked up the pace he needs to be able to show it.
“Naby has exceptional football qualities. His understanding of the game and his abilities in one-on-one situations are totally exceptional, even for football at the highest level.
Freund, who worked with Keita for three seasons in Austria before his move to Leipzig, wasn’t the only one who expected his old charge would set the world on fire in Liverpool.
Keita arrived as one of the most exciting talents in the Bundesliga, a destructive and creative midfielder, full of energy and, it seemed, perfectly suited for the Premier League – and especially Liverpool.
“I think a lot of people expected him to continue and become one of the best players in the Premier League,” said Peter Zeidler, another former Keita boss in Salzburg. “But the next step has always been the biggest and the most difficult.”
Zeidler, who is now in charge of Switzerland’s St. Gallen side, briefly coached Keita in 2015, but had previously been instrumental in the deal that took him to Salzburg from French second division club Istres. in 2014.
“At the time, I was the coach of FC Liefering, Salzburg’s second team,” he says. Goal . “But my previous job was to teach French at a university, so if we ever tackled a French-speaking player, whether it be Sadio Mane, Naby, [Dayot] Upamecano, I got the call!
“I remember Naby’s situation very well. It was Angers against Istres, just at the end of the season. I watched the match with Gérard Houllier, then Naby came to our hotel.
“It was maybe two in the morning. He was very shy, but Gérard and I explained our way of playing, our philosophy in Salzburg, and we managed to convince him.
Zeidler continues: “Gérard Houllier was very important to the affair, because he knew everyone in France! His best friend was Michel Rouqette, who now works as a scout for Lyon. Three, four times a week, they talked about the most interesting players in France.
“The Ligue 1 teams weren’t interested in Naby, but Michel kept telling Gérard that this guy was spectacular, better than everyone else. Gerard brought that to Ralf Rangnick (Director of Football at Red Bull) and the rest is history.
Zeidler, like Freund, believes Keita’s ability will allow him to thrive in England, provided he can stay in shape.
“He brings something different to these other midfielders,” he said. “He has exceptional individual ability, dribbles, plays forward all the time, and his ability to retrieve the ball is also of the highest level. He’s a huge talent, he takes risks with the ball, but he’s also a team player.
“This season is important for him. He has to come back, stay in shape and play games, and then we’ll see what he can bring.
Keita returned to action at Sheffield United on Sunday, playing the final 10 minutes of Liverpool’s 2-0 win. It was his first appearance since December 19, when he impressed in the Reds’ 7-0 triumph at Crystal Palace.
Liverpool were clear at the top of the league that day and looked set to defend their crown impressively, despite their injury issues.
But with Keita sidelined due to a hamstring issue, things turned out quite spectacularly after Christmas. Their last twelve league games have yielded just three wins, all away from home.
This means Keita will return to the squad with extra pressure on his shoulders. He was signed as a game changer, so can he now help lead the club’s renaissance?
“Naby is such a talented player,” said former Reds forward Neil Mellor. “I think there’s a lot of frustration on the part of the fans – and I imagine from him too – that we haven’t really seen for a constant period of time, exactly what he can do.
“I thought that when he came to the Premier League he was going to be one of the best players around. That first preseason he had, I was like “wow!” because he absolutely flew.
“The injuries have held him back and, unfortunately for him, the world does not stop. You have to keep moving forward, and other players step in. Curtis Jones is now ahead of him, and Naby has to fight to get ahead of him when he’s in good shape.
There’s no way Klopp will abandon Keita anytime soon. The manager’s confidence in him remains and he appreciates the difficulties he has faced.
The players are not to blame for the injuries, and Keita is by no means the only one suffering over the past three seasons. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, for example, finds himself in a similar situation, needing to prove himself once more after a stop-start campaign.
“I think Naby definitely gives us something when he’s in good shape,” Mellor says. “Sometimes our midfielder three can be a bit similar, but Naby gives us more, he’s more advanced and takes a little pressure off the top three. He carries the ball, takes risks and he has a goal threat.
“It was a lot of money that we paid for him, and he hasn’t lived up to it yet, but it’s not a failure – not yet anyway. We still believe there is a player out there who will be successful. “
“In my opinion, he’s at the best club, and playing under the best manager, to realize his potential,” he said.
“I know Jurgen Klopp always talks positively about him, and it would be great if he could make him available for selection for an extended period. I think it would make a huge difference for Liverpool.
Klopp certainly hopes so. Because almost three years after starting his career with the Reds, Keita is a puzzle that remains to be solved.
If and when it does, Liverpool should be so much the better.