Seydou Keita, a former unsung Barcelona hero, faces old team in UCL
Ask a layman to name the key players from Pep Guardiola's Champions League-winning FC Barcelona sides, and chances are Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol will be featured.
Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique or Eric Abidal will likely also get a nod or two. Yet one man who was vital in the Blaugrana's European success during that period received less fanfare, and Barca's visit to Italy this week provides the perfect opportunity to look back on his contribution. For Barcelona, facing AS Roma means facing Seydou Keita, the man who used to make European away trips like Wednesday's a great deal easier.
Barcelona signed Keita in 2008 just a year after Sevilla brought him to Spain from Lens. Prior to moving to Camp Nou, the Malian had earned a reputation for a thunderous shot from medium distance as well as a habit of scoring big goals -- Real Madrid and Arsenal among his notable victims. A season of consistent man-of-the-match performances in Andalucia was enough to convince Txiki Begiristain to pay the €14 million stipulated in Keita's buyout clause before someone else beat Barca to it. In hindsight, it was a bargain.
At Keita's presentation as a Barcelona player, Guardiola revealed his plans to use him on the left wing, talking up the midfielder's attacking qualities. In principal, it seemed as if the new signing would be a creative asset who could not only help offset the departures of Deco and Ronaldinho but also re-inject some much-needed competition into a squad that had spent several years on vacation under Frank Rijkaard. In the end, Keita would go on to surprise even a man of Guardiola's strong foresight, becoming the manager's biggest weapon in tackling tricky ties not for his attacking talents, but rather, for his tactical discipline.
A look back on the toughest away trips of Barcelona's 2009 and 2011 European Cup wins reveals a constant where Keita is concerned. At Stamford Bridge, at the Allianz Arena and at the Santiago Bernabeu, there he was on the team sheet. If Barca were in the trenches, Keita's presence was a guarantee.
In Keita, Guardiola found a player who was always willing to support under-pressure teammates by making himself available for a pass, one who never shirked his defensive responsibilities, and one whose capacity to listen and learn allowed him to absorb and effectively put into practice tricky tactical concepts that others had required years in the club's academy to fully grasp.
Perhaps aware of the lack of media attention afforded when Messi, Xavi or Iniesta were busy stealing the limelight, Guardiola would often make a point of eulogising Keita over their four years of working together. For Pep, he was "one of the most reliable players a manager could ever have," someone "you can't put a price on having," and even "the best thing" that happened to him during his time as Barca boss. Those weren't empty words.
In the double-winning 2010-11 Barca side for example, Keita was handed more appearances (56) by Guardiola than any other player in the squad.
Now, at the age of 35, Keita has quietly won over another attack-minded, ambitious coach. Roma boss Rudi Garcia started the midfielder 26 times in the league and Europe last season, taking time to publicly point out his collective spirit and desire to help the team with familiar words of praise. Having participated in all three of Roma's Serie A games this season to date, Keita will almost certainly play some part against his old side on Wednesday.
Symbolically, the Stadio Olimpico is the perfect location for Keita's Champions League reunion with Barcelona, as it was there he made one of his great contributions to their glory days in the competition, albeit one that is easily overlooked.
In the buildup to the 2008-09 European Cup final with Manchester United, Pep Guardiola had made the decision to use Keita as an emergency left-back to cover the loss of suspended Eric Abidal. Yet rather than take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start club football's biggest game regardless of the possible risks for the team, the midfielder instead selflessly pleaded that his coach should reconsider, insisting veteran Sylvinho would be more competent in the position.
A shaky opening 10 minutes aside, Barca went on to win the final and, for the most part, kept the Red Devils' attackers quiet, with Sylvinho producing the kind of assured, calm performance that can only be delivered by someone who knew his position inside out. That sums up Keita's time at Barca in a nutshell: minimal fuss, maximum return.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.