It has felt like a long wait to see Naby Keita truly announce himself as a Liverpool player, but he’s gone and done it in emphatic fashion.
After waiting a year for him to even join the Reds, and then having to sit and endure several months of iffy form and injuries, here he is!
At Burnley on Wednesday, the 23-year-old was handed his first Premier League start since the 2-1 win away to Tottenham in mid-September.
You could be forgiven for feeling a touch apprehensive.
Burnley away on a cold December night, for a player who is still adjusting at his new club and not started in the league for three months, in a must-win game for Jurgen Klopp’s men?
It felt like a risk.
We needn’t have been concerned in the slightest, however, as Keita produced comfortably his most accomplished performance in a Liverpool shirt to date, inspiring them to a hard-fought 3-1 win.
He was impressive on his debut at home to West Ham, but let’s be honest, the Hammers were essentially a pub side that day, offering no quality or fight and allowing Liverpool to cruise to a 4-0 win.
Charlie Adam would have looked good.
But this was a real test at a ground that Liverpool have famously struggled to play well at down the years, and Keita passed with flying colours.
There was a moment early on when he got the ball, drove forward at pace and was only ever thinking positively about his next decision.
It was almost bizarre to see, given how one-dimensional the Reds’ midfield has looked this season in the absence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
There was suddenly something to fear in the middle of the park for the opposition – something unpredictable and dangerous, rather than easy to read.
Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner are good footballers in their own right, but none of them is Keita. Not even close.
This was a glimpse into Liverpool’s future and proof that we should not be worried about the midfield, especially with Fabinho growing all the time as well.
Keita stood out from anyone else on the pitch for large chunks, certainly in an attacking sense – Virgil van Dijk was his usual colossal self at the back – and he even played well when Klopp’s men were below their best in an insipid first-half.
He was the only individual consistently looking like making something happen, whether it be fizzing passes into dangerous areas or attempting to break the lines with his dribbling ability.
In the second half, Liverpool’s performance went up an almighty gear, with Keita becoming even more of an influence. He ran the show in the middle of the park, with clever movement, silky touches and purposeful passes coming to the fore.
The Guinean was hugely unfortunate not to score his first-ever goal for his new club, too.
One forceful run ended with him hitting an arrow-like shot that was somehow kept out by Joe Hart, and three chances in the space of seconds also came and went, with his last of them, a flick, cleared off the line.
A goal would have been the icing on the cake but it was Keita’s all-round contribution that was so pleasing.
He completed 55 out of 59 passes, racking up a 93 per cent success rate – one of the misplaced efforts was arguably Alberto Moreno’s fault for a lack of communication – and there was nothing remotely cautious about his use of the ball.
All four of his shots were on target – two more goal-bound efforts were blocked – including the aforementioned Hart-saved one that would have been a Goal of the Season contender.
It was in an attacking sense where Keita shone most, but he was also dogged and effective in his defensive duties, making 10 recoveries and even winning one aerial duel, despite his diminutive frame.
He snapped into tackles, worked tirelessly and covered ground in a way that N’Golo Kante does. That is the only comparison between the two, by the way, much as some lazily like to claim otherwise.
All in all, it was one of the most positive performances by a Liverpool player this season, not only because of his impact on the night but because it was a taster of what is to come.
It is no hidden secret that Keita has taken time to settle at Anfield, but this will be an almighty confidence-boost for him.
Up until now, he has been a little too safe on the ball, and not influential enough in all facets of his game, but this was the RB Leipzig version of Keita.
This was the Keita who arrived with a reputation as one of Europe’s best midfielders – someone who would tear up the Premier League and take Liverpool to the next level.
It hasn’t happened as quickly as many would have liked, mainly because we’re such an impatient bunch, but Burnley away will forever be the match you can look back at and say, “that was the night Keita truly announced himself”.
He will only improve from this point on and he has shown in the space of 90 minutes that he now has to be starting more regularly than any other midfielder.