Riyad Mahrez took his time to come to life at Manchester City but his form this season suggests he is now a key part of Pep Guardiola’s plans.
The Algeria international pushed hard for his dream move from Leicester to the Etihad for two years, but initially agreed to stick with the Foxes following their famous 2015-16 Premier League title win before seeing a transfer collapse in January 2018.
Eventually, he got his wish and the deal went through for £60m in July that year, seeing him become Africa’s most expensive footballer ever. Such a tag brings great responsibility and he clearly felt the pressure early on.
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Mahrez seemed desperate to impress to begin with at City, always appearing to be trying too hard and that occasionally hurt his side, the best example coming when he fired over an 85th-minute penalty in the 0-0 draw at Liverpool.
Guardiola used him more sparingly after that October 2018 frustration but surprisingly turned to the 28-year-old on the final day of the season. With injuries aplenty, Mahrez was selected ahead of Leroy Sane for the final-day showdown at Brighton and rose to the occasion.
The Sarcelles-born star rolled back the years to produce an outstanding performance in the 4-1 victory at the Amex, firing in his side’s third goal after 63 minutes.
That display was rewarded with a start in the following weekend’s 6-0 FA Cup final win over Watford and, after helping his country claim the Africa Cup of Nations over the summer, he returned early from his holidays to ensure he stayed sharp.
Sane’s long-term knee injury has afforded Mahrez extra chances to shine this term and he has taken them with both hands, making 11 appearances at club level and scoring three goals. The best of these came at Everton in September when he cleverly angled a low free-kick past Jordan Pickford and into the net.
It could be argued the former Le Havre wideman would not have had that confidence this time last year but he now looks settled at the Etihad and everyone around him looks to be reaping the rewards.
Algeria shocked Colombia 3-0 in Lille on Tuesday and guess who was the star? If you want a clue, he scored twice after setting up Baghdad Bounedjah for the opener and will hope to be involved against Crystal Palace on Saturday. The answer is, of course, Mahrez.
So, with Manchester City eight points behind in the Premier League, what is next for the winger? First up is that trip to Selhurst Park on Saturday before the Citizens host Atalanta in the Champions League.
Those who follow City, or even Premier League leaders Liverpool, maybe hoping to find an answer to whether the domestic champions can claw back the eight-point gap between the pair, or if they instead choose to prioritise Europe.
The sensible approach is for Guardiola’s men to take it one game at a time but if Mahrez continues his form, expect him to be involved more often than not as his side chase the Reds at both home and abroad.
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