Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are the players most typically lauded after Liverpool’s latest quadruple-chasing display in the Premier League, but Naby Keita stole the headlines when he settled the Reds’ latest contest in their favour and kept them firmly in the hunt for the top-flight crown.
Elsewhere Alex Iwobi continued his renaissance under Frank Lampard as Everton defeated Chelsea 1-0, while his Nigerian compatriot Isaac Success endured a setback after the previous weekend’s fine display against Bologna.
As a gripping 2021-22 season draws to a close, Liverpool are demonstrating one unmistakable trait of a championship-winning side — the ability to find match-winners throughout the team.
The likes of Andy Robertson, Divock Origi and Ibrahima Konate have all stepped up recently to make the difference for Jurgen Klopp’s side as they continue to battle on multiple fronts, and last weekend it was Keita’s turn.
The Guinea midfielder has not lived up to his immense potential since arriving at Anfield for a whopping initial £48 million in 2017 and adopting Steven Gerrard’s iconic No. 8 shirt.
He arrived from RB Leipzig, for whom he had established himself as something of a latter-day West African Edgar Davids, combining pit-bull ball retrieval with slaloming forays forward and — crucially — the ability to make a difference in the final third.
Liverpool fans have taken him to their hearts, but the truth is that he’s not come close to his Bundesliga return of 26 goal contributions in his final two seasons with Leipzig, with his time in the North West mottled by injury and his fluctuating status within the Reds’ starting XI.
Keita’s contract situation — he’s approaching the final year of his deal — has gone somewhat under the radar amid the sagas involving Salah and Mane, with the 27-year-old’s future apparently in doubt even though he appears to retain the trust of Klopp.
On Saturday, however, he stepped into a starring role, demonstrating his determination, technique, composure and dribbling ability with an outstanding 19th-minute winner against Newcastle United.
Making the most of a rare start, the midfielder picked up the ball after James Milner‘s collision with Fabian Schar — a challenge that aggravated the home supporters — cut inside towards Martin Dubravka and duped the goalkeeper with a deft touch before finishing smoothly with his left foot.
It was a glimpse of excellence — as we saw from Salah against Villarreal — that encapsulated the midfielder’s breath-taking technical capacity. It was the highlight of a fine midfield display, with no Liverpool player registering more tackles than Keita’s three, and the Guinea man neutralising Joe Willock while also creating a fine goalscoring opportunity as the Reds sought a second.
Klopp, who has had to defend his big-money signing intermittently during Keita’s stop-start four-year Anfield career, was delighted with the midfielder’s star turn against the Magpies.
“Long may [his form] continue,” Klopp said in his post-match press conference. “If you have the talent and skills of Naby and you’re not fit, nobody sees it. He is now available. He played a good game at the weekend. He is a very good option. We will see how much we will use him [against Villarreal on Tuesday].”
Liverpool teammate Joe Gomez said the West African had a critical contribution to make in the coming months as the Reds chase immortality.
“That’s Naby’s ability and his ability to stay calm under pressure in that situation,” the England defender told the Reds’ official website. “I think our team’s got so much quality in midfield and going forward, we know we’re going to create chances. Obviously we didn’t put away loads [of chances] but the main thing is we’re creating. It was a great finish from Naby.”
Salah and Mane both had their moments against Newcastle, with the former replacing the latter on 69 minutes.
The Senegal superstar could only fire wide after being picked out by Gomez after the break, while Salah — a rare absentee from the starting lineup — nearly registered another assist after deliciously setting up Luis Diaz, only for Matt Targett to intervene.
That pair will be at the sharp end of Liverpool’s quadruple chase over the next month, but don’t bet against Keita also making more big contributions before the campaign ends.
Across Stanley Park, Everton have much more modest expectations for the final month of the season, with Premier League safety their only target as they look to extend their top-flight status beyond 68 years.
Their win over Chelsea on Sunday was arguably celebrated even more fervently than Liverpool’s earlier victory, as Richarlison inspired the Toffees to a 1-0 triumph that leaves their destiny in their own hands.
Iwobi’s understated — yet critical — performance may have gone under the radar amid scenes of a dog being paraded outside Goodison Park before the match, fireworks outside the Chelsea hotel, and blue flares in the stadium.
The Nigeria international has struggled to make an impact on Merseyside since signing from Arsenal in 2019, with a succession of managers failing to harness his talent and the player’s qualities coming under increasing scrutiny from the Toffees faithful.
There was none of that against Chelsea, with the West African — shoehorned into an unfamiliar right-back role in a back five — delivering a performance of grit, discipline and concentration to keep the European champions at bay.
His defensive contribution was highlighted by three clearances, two key tackles and one valuable interception, and he also sought to ease the strain on Everton’s backline by attempting to carry the ball forward.
He even played his part in Richarlison’s goal, picking out the Brazilian with a throw-in to start the move and put pressure on Thiago Silva in the visitors’ backline; Edouard Mendy was given little chance by the ex-Watford man’s controlled finish.
Another Iwobi throw-in later unleashed Anthony Gordon, who in turn played in Abdoulaye Doucoure; Vitaliy Mykolenko — picking up the ball from the Mali midfielder — should have done better as he bore down on goal, but was only able to send an angled effort wide.
Despite a series of indifferent performances under Lampard, workhorse Iwobi has retained, and repaid, the unswerving faith of his manager.
Elsewhere in the Premier League, Wilfried Zaha netted a winner at the death for Crystal Palace against Southampton to take his tally for the season to 12, while Kelechi Iheanacho ‘s late effort was only a consolation for Leicester City as they fell 3-1 to a vibrant Tottenham Hotspur side in North London.
In Italy, Success had surely been hoping to build on his fine performance against Bologna — against whom he scored and assisted — when Udinese hosted Internazionale.
But the Nigeria striker was unable to maintain his encouraging recent form — he had a hand in five goals during April — and he was replaced with injury before the half-hour mark.
Udinese coach Gabriele Cioffi appeared to downplay the setback even though the forward appeared to have been in some discomfort when he was replaced.
“It’s nothing serious,” Cioffi said, as per Udinese’s official website. “It was a problem that has bothered him in the past, but if he’s not there then we’ll play Ignacio Pussetto, who did very well [against Inter].”
Nigerian-Italian Iyenoma Udogie registered an assist for Udinese as they fell to a 2-1 defeat to leave them 11th in the Italian top flight.
Also in Serie A, Victor Osimhen and Kalidou Koulibaly were among the goals as Napoli thumped Sassuolo 6-1, with the Super Eagles forward now taking his tally for the season to 13 — equalling the best return of his career to date.
Another Nigerian, Samuel Chukwueze, was in fine fettle in LaLiga as he ended his four-and-a-half-month wait for a top-flight goal with a strike for Villarreal against Alaves.
The 47th-minute effort, after fine work from Giovani Lo Celso, wasn’t enough for the Yellow Submarine to avoid defeat but it will surely keep the Super Eagles wideman in Unai Emery’s first-team plans ahead of the Spanish side’s UEFA Champions League semifinal second leg against Liverpool on Tuesday.
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