The very last time Naby Keita lined up facing Liverpool in a Champions League quarter-final, there appeared to be no way back.
The Guinean was substituted three minutes prior to halftime against Real Madrid after the Reds had trailed two goals in the first leg, a disadvantage they were powerless to overturn.
Klopp’s reluctance to wait until the halftime break to hook Keita does seem to express everything. That season, the playmaker didn’t get to play another minute for the Reds, who fought their way back into Europe’s top cup tournament.
It looked a fairly dissatisfying finish to a Liverpool career that only rarely appeared capable of redeeming the £52.75 million price paid to take him away from RB Leipzig following a long pursuit in the summer of 2018.
That is not the case. Rather, the midfielder rolled up his sleeves, pleased during pre-season, and has gone on to produce presumably his most steadily inspiring season at Anfield, with his recovery from a minor knee injury putting him in conflict to encounter Benfica in their latest UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg here in Lisbon this evening.
When questioned if his time at Liverpool has managed to make him a better player, however, Keita’s response demonstrates why he is such a bit of a puzzle. He midfielder answered
“We can’t really say that for the moment because I don’t believe we’ve seen the real Naby Keita just yet. I’ve had quite a few injuries so I’m trying to come back gradually to full form and fitness. The coach is trying to do that with me too. And it’s my aim to try and establish myself and be seen in the world of football and I guess we’ll see how that goes, either this season or the next.”
He continued by saying “Getting regular games is something that motivates me even more. It’s great to know when you’re playing to not have the worry of getting injured. It hasn’t always been easy in the past because when you are on the way back, you try to be a bit more careful at first. but recently I’ve felt like I’m 100% full-out and hopefully I can continue like that.”
Injuries have ravaged Keita’s Liverpool career, with the 27-year-old having been absent four times this season alone. However, his 25 appearances thus far are only eight short of his greatest total with the Reds, which he set during his first season in 2018/19.
The notion that he has only managed to start 16 games – and only four of them for the full 90 minutes – showcases the intense level of competition in an ever-rotating Liverpool midfield, though his potential to make five substitutions in European competition indicates he can anticipate to make a contribution even if he is left on the bench at the Estadio da Luz.
Liverpool has been squashed their last three visits to Benfica, but they have only been ousted once in their preceding five matches, when they were defeated home and away in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 as holders in 2006.
However, with Benfica trailing in the Primeira Liga standings, the Reds are great favourites to win the tie and resume their pursuit for an extraordinary quadruple.