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Meet the scout who discovered Leipzig star and Liverpool target Naby Keita

Naby Keita's reluctance to give up when fighting a losing battle is what put him on the path to becoming one of the most sought-after midfielders in football.

It was in France with floundering FC Istres back in 2013 when former Red Bull Global Soccer scout Benoit Thans was first alerted to the Guinean's willingness to take on a superior, more powerful opponent.

Istres, a club with financial troubles that would ultimately be relegated from Ligue 2 in the 2013-14 season, travelled to promotion-chasing RC Lens in December. A comfortable win for Lens was the safest of bets but, running the show from central midfield, 18-year-old Keita propelled his team to the unlikeliest of victories, beating the eventual Ligue 2 runners-up 2-1.

"I followed him a few times," Thans tells ESPN FC. "It was an away match and Istres were not in a good situation, but in this match he was the best on the field.

"For me, it was very important because it told me that he wanted to continue to have good progression, to play for the team, to win. He was the best on the pitch in this match. I followed him for three or four matches and he was always the best player on the pitch."

Thans' reports back to RB Leipzig and Salzburg sporting director Ralf Rangnick were extremely positive. It initially appeared the Red Bull Group were unchallenged in their pursuit of the player.

"I don't remember how many clubs [were watching him], but it was not many clubs because he was young," Thans, who had been a player in Belgium before becoming technical director with the national team and then moving into scouting, says.

"He was the first player that I followed. After [I have scouted him], it is not my job to buy him or train him. I just gave my opinion as a scout."

However, one person who did urge Rangnick to snap up Keita was former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier. The Frenchman, who was in charge at Anfield between 1998-2004, is influential at Red Bull's football operations, having held the position of global sports director for soccer since 2012.

Following Thans' feedback and Houllier's recommendation, Austrian outfit RB Salzburg acquired Keita in the summer of 2014. Then after two hugely-impressive seasons, he moved on to sister club RB Leipzig last summer in €15 million deal.

"After [his success] he had many, many clubs on him, but at the Red Bull Group was Gerard Houllier, and Gerard also spoke about him," Thans says. "He went to Salzburg first and he was one of the best players [as a] No. 6. After one or two years, he goes to Leipzig.

"When I think about this player, it's a top player. He has big quality to play in front of him, to make good pressing. He can score, can have recuperation of the ball. He was very good tactically.

"He has a top, top mentality, in training he is very good, he's young, has big ambition and a very good guy."

After just one season in the Bundesliga with Leipzig, in which he finished second to Robert Lewandowski in German magazine Kicker's end-of-season poll for best outfield player, there have been reports that Liverpool are willing to smash their transfer record to land Keita this summer.

Leipzig, however, do not want to lose such a key player as they prepare to embark into the Champions League for the first time, having finished runners-up to Bayern Munich last season.

"Now I don't know what the future is for him, but I know that many clubs are interested in him," Thans adds. "But I know that Ralf Rangnick wants to keep him.

"When you go to play in the Bundesliga, you certainly make very good progression. But now it's also financial and if you say Liverpool are interested -- all players are interested when Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United come to see you and they are maybe interested. It's always good for a player -- it's a big name in the world.

"For me, he can make progression again, but he's already on the top."

Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.


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