RB Leipzig, Naby Keita aren't afraid of Bayern Munich ahead of crucial clash
Despite Wednesday night's disappointing DFB Pokal exit, Ralph Hasenhuttl was visibly in a very good mood on Friday. "I think the game was so much fun that we're really looking forward to the next match," said the RB Leipzig coach, smiling. Projecting that kind of optimism is part of the coaching job, of course, but the 50-year-old's excitement seemed genuine.
Hasenhuttl approaches the second game in four days against Bayern Munich safe in the knowledge that Leipzig are getting closer and closer to beating the champions. The Saxons have gone from getting ripped apart in the 3-0 defeat in December 2016 at the Allianz Arena to a narrow 4-5 reversal at Leipzig in May and now, a credible 1-1 draw with one man down for over an hour followed by (unsuccessful) penalties. Naby Keita, whose ill-discipline created that numerical disadvantage in the 56th minute, wasn't lying when he suggested that Leipzig had overcome the "fear" factor in the run-up to Wednesday's second round cup game.
"We were too respectful," the future Liverpool midfielder told Suddeutsche Zeitung.
RBL still need to show that they can also push Bayern all the way at the Allianz Arena, where courage is a bit harder to come by than at the heaving Red Bull Arena. But if Bayern couldn't beat Hasenhuttl's side without "the best man on the pitch," as the manager described Keita, who's to say they'll fare much better if and when the Guinea international actually lasts the entire 90 minutes for a change?
"We can't protect him -- this is not rugby," said Hasenhuttl. "But I hope that we'll have a referee [in Munich] who'll have enough of a feel for the situation to give us a top game that goes on for a little longer."
Leipzig's attacking ambitions effectively ended once the most expensive African player (his transfer for next season will cost the Reds up to €70 million depending on add-ons) was sent off for a third time in 39 days. They were forced to change to a much more passive style, waiting in two lines of four near their box for Bayern to make a mistake. When Keita left, so did their hyper-aggressive transition tactics. The 22-year-old doesn't just epitomise RBL's all-action pressing strategy; he is their game, an entire midfield rolled into one single player.
His slight, 5-foot-6 (1.72m) figure casts a long Deckungsschatten, the shade that turns green opposition passing lanes into infertile soil. He's the pressing trigger and the ball winner. He's the first runner. He's the vertical pass and its recipient, the assistant and the finisher.
Take away Keita's irrepressible thrust and what you have is a very, young talented group of players. It's only through him, the son of an occasional motorcycle engineer from one of Conakry's more modest quarters, that the purpose-made team of a soft drink billionaire can entertain thoughts of winning the title in their second-ever season Bundesliga season.
"[Keita is] an extraordinarily gifted player, one of the best I've worked with in 20 years of professional football," said RB sporting director Ralf Rangnick. "I'd be 10 times happier if we would could keep him for another five years. But it wasn't possible."
Bayern were sufficiently wary of his influence to target him with a number of small, sly tackles. They systematically worked him over until he paid back in kind. Pulling back Robert Lewandowski's shirt to stop a counter-attack was the sort of yellow card that is sometimes inevitable, a hit you have to take for the team. But the damage was done earlier in the game by his first booking, a foul on Thiago a few seconds before the half-time whistle.
Talking to Suddeutsche before the game, Keita admitted that Bayern were the more experienced side. "We are a young team eager to improve. For us, these games are an opportunity to learn and get into situations you can't train for." Saturday night's game between second and third in the Bavarian capital will show if Keita has learned his own lesson and whether Leipzig can get over their last domestic psychological hurdle with his help.
Hasenhuttl certainly talks a good enough game.
"We will be in full-on battle mode again, the most difficult opponent for Bayern possible," he vowed. "After winning in Dortmund [3-2], there's no reason to be afraid."
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein