After a week of constant transfer speculation, all eyes were on Naby Keita as Leipzig hosted Schalke. The Guinean midfielder lived up to his star billing but it was a cameo from Timo Werner that stole the show.
Naby Keita is a player that cannot be ignored. This second-versus-fifth showdown had almost been forgotten amid the frenzied speculation over the Guinean's immediate future. And, sure enough, the game's leading man managed to play both hero and villain before Timo Werner's cameo stole the show.
The cameras panned to Keita as soon as warm-up began and some rarely switched their focus. But despite the chatter when the teams were read out, Keita's name was bellowed as loud as any. The volume was cranked up a few decibels 41 minutes in, when the midfielder's speculative drive took a deflection off Naldo to give Leipzig the lead soon after they'd missed a penalty. The stadium announcer barely needed to encourage those in red and white to roar his last name in unison.
His side started slowly, but Keita didn't. As he often does, he played in bursts, winning a ball here, accelerating in to a half space there and stroking through balls to turn Schalke's backline around.
For a man with such stamina and drive, much of Keita's work was done in moments of drift. Taking up a position left of center, off the shoulder of Alessandro Schöpf, he showed the intelligence to operate in pockets of space ordinary central midfielders can't find.
Read more: Bundesliga matchday 18 round-up
It was from one of these moments that Keita scored the opener. Just before the break, Kevin Kampl looked up to see his midfielder partner with the freedom of Red Bull Arena. The strike was decent, the deflection cruel and the response from Keita and the crowd emphatic.
There should have been no reason to expect anything else. Keita's initial agreement with Liverpool was sealed with the minimum of fuss and the transfer tornado that has been whipped up in the last few days is beyond his control.
Before the game, his sporting director was as direct and bullish as the club have been all week. "He will play with us until the end of the season,” Ralf Rangnick told Sky. "He is starting today. There isn't more to say.”
Schalke began the second half on top and the 22-year-old took it upon himself to drop a little deeper and run a little harder in an attempt to eliminate danger and a demonstrate his commitment. It didn't work. A penchant for unnecessary fouls is Keita's biggest weakness and a needless infringement on the left led to a booking for Keita and another headed goal for Naldo.
The midfielder was substituted soon after, to a warm but not overwhelming ovation, with Leipzig boss Hasenhüttl no doubt concerned that a red was not far away.
But for Leipzig's keeper Peter Gulasci, Keita had done enough in his truncated time on the pitch to put any doubts about his focus firmly to bed.
"His head was on the game today and I think everybody could see that,” the former Liverpool stopper told DW after the game. "He's a very important player for us with amazing qualities. I think the answer to all the questions was his performance today because he was active, he was really trying to make a difference today. And that's the Naby Keita we need.”
Despite Keita's display, it was left to Leipzig's other standout player Timo Werner — on as a second half substitute — to pick up the slack. And he did so to devastating effect, hooking in after Naldo performed a hero-to-villain act of his own with a slack pass, before rolling in Bruma to seal a win that lifts Leipzig above their opponents and in to 2nd.
Keita's removal from the pitch may have stopped any forensic analysis of how he waved goodbye to the fans but it's unlikely to halt the rumors. He did, however, have enough time to demonstrate why Liverpool want him so badly. There are still rough edges to be filed but Keita is a player that makes things happen.
Ultimately, though, this game was won in his absence. Sooner or later, that's something Leipzig are going to have to get used to.