There have been countless factors behind Liverpool’s successful season, which has led them to the Champions League final.
The match against Real Madrid at the Stade de France will be Liverpool’s 63rd of a relentless campaign which has seen them go all the way in all four competitions they entered, and which has seen them win two trophies. The Carabao Cup and FA Cup are already in the bag and Jurgen Klopp’s side will go for a historic Treble against Real in the French capital.
Whatever happens, it will be the culmination of a remarkable season – one which needed just about everything to be in sync and just about everything to go right. One of the many factors which has fed into Liverpool’s 2021/22 season is their work in the transfer market, which has focused on quality over quantity.
Unlike some of their rivals, Liverpool have only signed two players during this campaign – one apiece in the summer and January windows. Unsurprisingly, for a club of Liverpool’s well-oiled nature, both have been major successes, but in completely different ways.
Ibrahima Konate arrived from RB Leipzig over the summer for £36million. The young French central defender helped address an obvious weakness from the previous season, when injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez derailed Klopp’s efforts. Konate took time to settle in, with Van Dijk and Joel Matip established as the first-choice centre-back pairing, before growing more and more in stature as the season wore on. He arrives at the Champions League final at the top of his game with a good chance of starting.
Luis Diaz arrived from Porto in the January transfer window for an initial fee of £37.5m, which could rise to £50m. Liverpool fought off Tottenham and others to secure the Colombian winger, who wasted no time in showing why the club moved so decisively for him. His raw statistics – six goals and five assists in 25 matches so far – don’t explain the nature of his whirlwind impact in the past four months.
Liverpool chose well when signing Konate and Diaz, that much is obvious. Both have joined a tight-knit and highly-demanding squad and flourished. They could both feature against Real Madrid. And yet their pathways to the top could hardly be more different. Here are their stories, as told to Mirror Football by their former youth coaches.
“I remember six years ago when I had just joined Sochaux, there was this final,” Konate said this week. “We made the journey to go to Stade de France to see the Under-19s in the final. It’s incredible to think that I was watching a match at that level from the stands just a few years ago, my first time there, and now I’ll be on the grass…playing in a Champions League final there. It really is some journey.”
Ibrahima Konate is from Paris. He grew up not far from the Stade de France, one of eight children to Malian immigrant parents. Like all the children in his neighbourhood, he played football on the cage pitches which have come to define the city’s prolific output of elite players. When they didn’t have a football to play with, Konate, his friends and siblings would improvise with Sellotape and paper.
By the age of 10 he was showing enough promise that people were starting to take notice – and not just because of his size. Paris FC was where it all started for a young Konate, but it was far from an immediate rise through the ranks for a kid who was known to everyone as “Ibu”.
Having grown up playing on concrete and tarmac in tight spaces, Konate was unused to playing on grass. His size, which had helped him stand out, also caused some issues. Like many children inspired by the Brazilian Ronaldo, he started out as a striker, but by the Under-11 age group he was lagging behind his peers. Enter Reda Bekhti, who coached Konate when he played for Paris FC’s Under-12s and Under-13s. Bekhti was impressed with his young player’s athleticism, but thought there was something missing.
“Ibrahima was a very nice boy, very polite, well brought up, smiling and hardworking, a boy who integrated well into a group with his joy of living at the football level, he had great athletic qualities but a technical aspect to refine,” Bekhti tells Mirror Football.
“He was a striker for one and a half seasons and in this position, given the reduced space, he had certain difficulties due to his size and the lack of space. After reflection with the B-team coach we decided to take him down a notch into midfield in a match against Torcy and it was a revelation.”
Suddenly, Konate’s size was an asset, rather than a problem. Bekhti adds: “He had very efficient technical quality, [was good at] ball recovery and his management of duels [was] almost perfect.” It only took one match in midfield to catch the eye of a scout from Sochaux, who offered him a place in the academy.
Konate moved down to the town of Montbéliard, near the Swiss border, to continue his education in Sochaux’s academy – and it was there he was used back even further, from midfield to centre-back. According to The Athletic , it is Sochaux Under-17s coach Eric Hely who deserves the credit for that idea, which hastened Konate’s development even further.
Chris Brunskill/The FA via Getty Images)
He was soon moved up to train with the first-team and, after just 13 senior appearances, he was off to RB Leipzig in 2017. The German club had liked what they’d seen, despite Konate being on the winning side just twice in the French second division for Sochaux.
It was a certain Ralf Rangnick who got the deal over the line for Leipzig. “You give Ralf an hour with a player, and that’s it,” Konate’s former agent Bruno Satin told The Athletic last year. “He’s very persuasive.” Konate spent four years with Leipzig, continuing to develop and learn before Liverpool came calling. Just one season later, aged 23 and with just 136 professional matches under his belt, he could be starting in the Champions League final.
Bekhti always knew he was destined for the top. “I’m not surprised, because he was always a hard worker and very serious [that] he could only get there,” he says. Konate’s former team-mates and coaches from Paris FC will be cheering him on against Real Madrid.
“It’s quite a symbol: a Champions League final at home in the city where you grew up in a stadium where every Parisian dreams of playing,” Bekhti adds. “It’s the absolute dream, in front of practically all his family. The emotions will be strong for him, but I trust he will be able to ignore [them] and focus on his performance.”
Diaz’s remarkable journey
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
Luis Diaz always had the talent, but in the early stages of his career, it didn’t seem like he had the luck needed to take you all the way to the top. Diaz is a member of the Wayuu, an indigenous community from La Guajira, an outcrop of land in the very north of Colombia, close to the border with Venezuela. It is not a rich area and for some time it seemed as though geography was going to conspire against the young Diaz.
That’s not to say that his talent wasn’t noticed – The Athletic notes local newspaper clippings at the time which proclaimed him “a miniature superstar” – but making that next step is difficult in a rural and isolated area. La Guajira is not noted for being a footballing hotbed and therefore not many scouts visit the area. Diaz could easily have slipped through the cracks. Luckily for Liverpool, that was not the case.
His break came In 2015, when Diaz was 18 and therefore at an age when the brutal world of youth football intersects with the senior game. Atletico Junior, one of just three top-level clubs based on Colombia’s northern coast, held open trials for 3,000 budding footballers. That could be a daunting prospect for Diaz, but Fernel Diaz, who was then sporting coordinator at Junior and is now the club’s director of the academies, says that was not the case at all.
“He came to try out on one of the five pitches at the training ground,” Diaz tells Mirror Football. “He was watched by Juan Carlos Cantillo who was in charge of the Under-18s. From the first training session, Luis stood out for his dribbling and his footballing ability. After a few days of training it was decided that he’d become part of the club and his story of competition and making a difference.”
Diaz’s talent was obvious, but there was a problem: his weight. The Wayuu people have suffered from malnutrition and Junior’s coaches knew the skinny Diaz needed to bulk up if he was going to play professionally. Fernal Diaz was in charge of giving the club’s bright young player protein supplements and coached him in Barranquilla’s Under-20s in 2016.
“When he arrived he was thin, a youngster with ambition, with a will to win,” he explains. “He and his family made a big effort to keep him at Barranquilla in the early years because he’s from Barrancas. The thing that stood out was his ability to dribble past people. He was very strong in offensive duals. Despite being very slim he was very strong. From the first day he arrived at the club he surprised us with his ability. Luis was a player that believed in his own ability straight from academy football at Junior and Barranquilla.”
Wagner Meier/Getty Images)
Now on the right path, Diaz continued to impress for Atletico Junior and international recognition came for Colombia Under-20s and then the senior team. Four years after being on trial in a crowd of 3,000, Diaz was attracting attention from all over. The 2019 Copa America in Brazil marked the point at which Atletico Junior couldn’t keep him a secret anymore.
Porto won the race ahead of River Plate, signing him in 2019 for £5.9m. Once in Portugal, his reputation continued to grow and grow, with the Champions League providing another springboard. Liverpool came calling in January and four months later, with two medals already in his collection, Diaz could start in the Champions League final.
As one of his first coaches, Fernel Diaz is proud of his former player’s rapid progress. “What he’s achieving doesn’t come as a surprise to us,” he says. “He was always the best in the club. He’s a winner. He’s a young guy who’s focused and knows what he wants. For me, he doesn’t have a ceiling – he’s one of the best players in the world. It surprised us a bit how quickly he’s settled in Liverpool and adapted to their style of play and all the other things that happen when you change clubs and countries.”
So will Fernal Diaz and his colleagues at Atletico Junior be watching Saturday’s big game? “Of course! We’ll be watching the final in Liverpool shirts. Barranquilla will come to a standstill for it! Liverpool will win it.”