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Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez ready to resurrect his reputation under Claude Puel

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Riyad Mahrez

It is hard to believe that little over three years ago, a young and budding Algerian footballer was plying his trade in the French second division, turning out each week for mid-table outfit Le Havre.

The career of Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez has certainly taken its fair share of twists and turns in the years that have followed, and he’s a player that has managed to regularly capture the attention of the Premier League – for both the good and the bad – since switching across to England.

Notoriously, he was the relatively unknown talisman of the most unlikely title triumph, playing the protagonist in a fairy-tale story that will go down into the long-term history of England’s top division.

It was the breakthrough that the boy from Algeria had always dreamt of, scoring 17 goals and contributing 11 assists as he – alongside another man with a fairy-tale story in Jamie Vardy – spearheaded Leicester’s shock title win. Mahrez had all of a sudden catapulted himself to the pinnacle of football.

He swept the board in terms of end of season accolades, earning a spot in the PFA Team of the Year for his contribution before becoming the first African player to claim the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, and the speculation of interest from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid was firmly justified.

This reported interest from a host of global giants signified just how far Mahrez’s progress had travelled, and how the world viewed his raw talent, and this was backed up by his seventh-place Ballon d’Or finish.

Yet, it seems that as quickly as he built this reputation for himself, he lost it.

Claudio Ranieri – the mastermind behind Leicester’s title triumph – denied him his dream move away from the King Power in the summer of 2016 amidst interest from the Premier League big boys, convincing him to sign a new four-year deal at the club, and his form immediately started to decline.

At the time it seemed like the Leicester winger was merely throwing his toys out the pram at being forced to remain with the Foxes and he visibly struggled on the pitch to continue the momentum that he had built up in the campaign before, although this wasn’t helped by Leicester’s struggles to grind out results.

Ranieri eventually left, replaced by caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare, and although Leicester’s results on the field picked up the same couldn’t really be said about the performances of the winger.

Over the past nine months, since Shakespeare’s takeover at the helm, there have been the odd glimpse of the Mahrez of old but these glimpses have all-too quickly been replaced by mediocrity.

Perhaps what’s indicative of Mahrez’s gradual demise in the past 18 months was the fact that he failed to make the recently announced 30-man shortlist for the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) African Player of the Year – an award he claimed for himself just 12 months ago for his title-winning exploits.

In the midst of his decline in form was yet another summer transfer saga, with Mahrez this time being heavily linked to Arsenal, Roma and Barcelona amongst others, and the Algerian seemingly took his future into his own hands when he openly handed in a written transfer request at Leicester.

This open letter, as relayed by the Independent in late May, stated:

“Out of the huge admiration and respect I hold for Leicester City Football Club I wanted to be totally honest and transparent with them and have therefore informed the club that I feel now is the time for me to move on.

“I had a good discussion with the Chairman last summer and we agreed at that time that I would stay for another year in order to help the club as best as I could following the transition of winning the title and in the Champions League.

“However, I am fiercely ambitious and feel that now is the time to move on to a new experience.”

However, unfortunately for Mahrez it was the case of a different manager, same situation, as new boss Shakespeare did all in his power to ensure that the 26-year-old remained a Leicester man in August.

There wouldn’t have been many Leicester fans that would have expected to see Mahrez still at the club come September 1, particularly when he was permitted to leave the Algerian national camp to finalise a perceived move to Barcelona, but this move away failed to materialise for the second time.

It’s a move that only this week has been put back in the spotlight following comments from Roma director of football Monchi, who admitted that both his club and Barcelona were adamantly told no.

Speaking to Italian news outlet Gazetta dello Sport, as quoted by the Daily Mail, Monchi is quoted as saying:

“We wanted a left-footed winger to replace Mohamed Salah and put it all on Mahrez, but the only reason he didn’t come was because the club wouldn’t sell.

“It’s not an excuse, they said no to Barcelona too.”

With Mahrez all of a sudden very publicly being kept at the King Power against his will as the 2017-18 campaign got into full flow there were questions marks over whether he would continue in a similar vein to the summer before, where there were theories circulating of him having a severe attitude issue.

Any such theories have quickly fallen by the wayside, however.

To his credit, Mahrez has acquitted himself excellently to the task at hand as Leicester look to strive for the European spots once again, and there has been no sign of any deadline day hangover so far.

There is little doubt that there was an overriding feeling of disappointment coursing through his veins after missing out on his dream move but the 26-year-old has shown admirable maturity since and, out of nowhere, his performances on the pitch are starting to grow an element of consistency once again.

It is arguable that he’s learnt his lesson from the previous summer, and that he is now playing for his transfer away next year, but Leicester fans won’t care as long as he continues to gives his all on the pitch.

Whilst Leicester’s results have been far from ideal – resulting in Shakespeare being relieved of his managerial duties – the arrival of ex-Southampton man Claude Puel could be Mahrez’s second chance.

Puel has already vowed to ‘seduce’ the winger into remaining at the King Power in the long-term, and whilst this might be a stretch too far he has already got him performing after just two games in charge.

In an interview with the Telegraph, the Frenchman spoke about Mahrez and said:

“It is down to me to make these players want to stay by the fact we are playing good football. I have always got to attract them, to seduce them. It is down to me to create that environment where these players want to thrive and stay enjoy themselves, their football and the plans that we have.

“It is normal for a player, if they win the title and play Champions League, that sometimes there is disappointment, frustration because now they know the high level.”

It seems that whatever the new Leicester manager has been saying behind closed doors has been working wonders too, with Mahrez showing signs of getting back to some sort of form close to his best during the thoroughly entertaining 2-2 stalemate away at Stoke City on Saturday lunchtime.

The 26-year-old was a constant thorn in the Stoke defence, providing a potent threat on the counter-attack, and he sent the Potters twisting and turning on his way to scoring his second of the season.

It was a goal reminiscent of his magnificent effort against Chelsea during Leicester’s title-winning year and whilst it’s too premature to suggest he’s back at that level, the early signs are filled with promise.

Puel has already started to eliminate the bad habits that he had started to pick up, with the Algerian feeling the need to leave his flank and go in search of the ball in the past, but the new system in place with Demarai Gray on the opposite flank has him hugging the right touch-line more frequently.

Puel knows that Mahrez is his key man and still enables him the freedom to roam inside in possession of the ball, and it was a tactic that paid dividends on a number of occasions at Stoke.

Perhaps most critically though is that the 26-year-old is starting to build up some confidence and a cocksure approach to his football that made him so effective in the 2015-16 season, and it’s all down to him being back in the goals – he’s either scored or assisted in each of Leicester’s last five games.

The appointment of Puel at the King Power was met with a fair amount of trepidation but it seems that his impact is already gradually coming through on the pitch, with four points earnt from a possible six.

Puel’s main project is clear, to lift Leicester back up to where they should be in the table, but he knows his side project is to resurrect the career of Mahrez – and it’ll be interesting to see how it now develops.

Mahrez’s long-term future will remain in doubt indefinitely but, for now, the priority is raising his morale each week, and time will tell whether the Algerian can re-find the heights of his breakthrough campaign.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @willypearson.

Leicester City

Leicester City 2-0 Watford: Three talking points from the King Power

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Leicester City
Photo: Reuters

Leicester City moved up to seventh in the Premier League table as goals in either half from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez earnt a comfortable win over struggling Watford on Saturday afternoon.

It was a far from fluid encounter between two sides looking to turn around some below par recent form, but it was the hosts who went closest early on when Vardy’s low drive was parried away by incoming goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis.

Troy Deeney found the net for Watford only to see it chalked off for offside before Vardy did open the scoring, being hauled down by Molla Wague’s late challenge before coolly sending Karnezis the wrong way with the spot-kick.

Watford made some attacking substitutions after the break as they went in search of an equaliser and Andre Gray went closest when his effort was pushed aside, but by committing men into the attack they were always vulnerable to the counter and Mahrez tucked home to secure all the points.

The result sees the Foxes earn just their second win in seven league matches, lifting them above Burnley into seventh, whilst Watford remain in 10th with just the solitary win in their past 11 games.

Defeat proves the final straw as Silva sacked

What a difference a few months can make.

At the end of September, Watford were within touching distance of the Champions League spots after a blistering start to the season, losing just one out of eight matches.

There were genuine talks that the Hornets could be the team to try and muscle their way into the top six such was the way they ground out results and it was testament to some expansive football.

But a wretched run of form since a 3-0 away win at Newcastle in late November has ended those lofty ambitions and sent Watford – and boss Marco Silva – crashing back down to earth with an unwanted reality check, and defeat at Leicester means it’s now just the solitary win in 11 league outings.

It also signalled the end of Silva’s time in charge after just a matter of months, with the Club releasing a statement on Sunday morning announcing that they have parted company with the Portuguese tactician.

It may not come as a surprise considering their recent run of form but it’s a decision that has a feeling of haste about it, as Silva’s rejuvenation of Watford at the start of the season was unlike anything seen at Vicarage Road for a number of years.

Yet ultimately football is a results driven business and this – allied with an underlying message about Everton’s approach before Christmas – has resulted in his swift dismissal.

As for Watford’s demise, it’s hard to pinpoint an area as to why this has happened.

Over the course of these games they’ve conceded 23 times and only scored 11 – the same amount they managed in their opening seven games of the year – and there’s evidently glaring problems at both ends of the pitch.

Constant injuries to first-team players has hampered any hopes of progress but there’s still more than enough quality in the Watford squad, and whoever the new man in is they will need to find a way to get them firing again.

Record-signing Gray draws blank again

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Watford’s decline in form has come at the same time as a dry patch from young Brazilian Richarlison, who had proven to be a revelation in the Premier League since his summer move.

The 20-year-old has failed to find the net since the 2-0 win over West Ham in mid-November – 12 matches ago – and in the same period of time he’s only managed to create nine chances for his side.

For a point of comparison, he managed to score five goals and craft 14 opportunities in his opening 12 games when Watford were firing on all fronts. This will no doubt worry whoever Silva’s successor is as, whenever Richarlison isn’t impacting matches, it seems that there’s no-one else who will pick up the goal-scoring burden.

And one of the biggest disappointments of the season to date for the Hornets has been the patchy form of club-record signing Andre Gray.

At £18.5million there was a lot of hope and expectation on the shoulders of the former Burnley man but, with just four goals from 23 outings, he hasn’t quite had the desired impact since arriving at Vicarage Road.

It was a match where clear chances were few and far between but Watford’s best chance of an equaliser fell to Gray in the second-half, where his shot from inside the area was pushed away by Kasper Schmeichel. It was a smart stop but, on another day and with an in-form striker, it should have been buried and Gray will be kicking himself over it.

The players will know that they need to just grind out a result and their form could turn around again, and they will hope to get a second wind under a new manager and return to winning ways when they visit relegation-threatened Stoke City in a fortnight’s time.

Vardy and Mahrez run Watford ragged

Leicester City supporters can be forgiven for thinking that it’s the 2015-16 Premier League season once again as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez ran the show to earn a convincing win over Watford.

The duo have both endured some testing spells since the euphoric title-winning year but under Claude Puel they seem to be thriving, and the way they ran the show on Saturday was merely indicative of the confidence that is flowing through their veins again.

Watford will no doubt be sick of the sight of Mahrez after he notched his fifth goal in his last five appearances against the Hornets, rounding things off in injury-time with a composed finish.

There seems to be far less speculation over the Algerian’s future in this January transfer window compared to last year and it’s arguably this that allows him to focus on his football and nothing else.

And he was well accompanied by Vardy on the day, who caused constant problems for an under-strength Watford back-line. Their centre-back pairing of Molla Wague – who brought him down for the penalty – and Christian Kabasele just couldn’t contain his pace nor keep track of his late runs.

If both Vardy and Mahrez can sustain this sort of form long into the season then it’s anyone’s guess as to where Leicester may finish – and who knows, seventh might be a more than realistic target.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 0-0 Leicester City: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech

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Chelsea
Photo: Reuters

Chelsea remain winless in 2018 after Antonio Conte’s misfiring charges recorded their third successive goalless draw.

Despite having a numerical advantage for the final 20 minutes following Ben Chilwell’s red card, the Blues could not find a winning goal against a Leicester City side that enjoyed prolonged spells of dominance.

Chelsea have now played more than 270 minutes of football in all competitions without scoring and have dropped to fourth place in the Premier League table as a result of Liverpool’s victory over Manchester City. Leicester remain eighth and continue their good form since Claude Puel’s appointment as manager.

Here are three talking points…

Chelsea’s goal scoring problems are mounting

Much has been written about Alvaro Morata’s goalscoring drought, which extended to five matches after he failed to register a single effort in this clash, but Chelsea’s goalscoring issues go much deeper.

Since the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on January 3, the Blues have failed to find the back of the net. None of the top six clubs have scored fewer than Chelsea’s current tally of 41 Premier League goals for the season.

There is no doubt the burden has rested heavily on Morata and when he was in fine form during the first few months of the campaign, Chelsea were often rampant. But the Spaniard’s barren spell has coincided with a downturn in the Blues’ effectiveness.

The problem for Conte is he has little faith in back-up striker Michy Batshuayi. There is no other obvious candidate to act as the focal point, although the Italian has previously experimented with a false number nine.

Defensively, Chelsea are very solid, but that counts for little when they fail to score.

Leicester grab a point despite Chilwell’s red

It’s not often a player receives two yellow cards in a matter of minutes, but that’s exactly the fate that befell Leicester’s Ben Chilwell.

After being cautioned for a foul on Willian, the Leicester man then received a second booking only five minutes later for bringing down Victor Moses.

Both fouls were fairly innocuous and Chilwell’s dismissal disrupted the Foxes’ performance, which had threatened to claim all three points at Stamford Bridge.

Leicester boss Puel was critical of Mike Jones’ decision to send off Chilwell, which may have come under more scrutiny had Chelsea gone on to win the game.

As it was, the visitors held out for a point, which was the least they deserved. Jamie Vardy twice went close to breaking the deadlock and Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois had to be alert throughout.

This was definitely not a rearguard display – Leicester created numerous chances and were keen to take the game to their high-flying opponents.

Tiredness to blame – Conte

Chelsea boss Conte blamed tiredness for his side’s failure to win for the fourth game in a row. This fixture came just three days after their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal, amid a run of seven games in 21 days.

The Blues return to action again against Norwich City for an FA Cup third round replay on Wednesday night. In total, Chelsea will play eight games in January after playing nine in December.

There’s no doubt it is a punishing schedule, but Chelsea are not alone in that regard. A club with their squad depth should be able to cope. Conte has rotated his squad, particularly for the cup games, and is sure to field a much-changed side for the Norwich replay.

Of course, if the Blues were winning matches there would be no need to raise the fatigue element as an excuse.

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Leicester City

Would this be the ideal transfer window for Leicester City?

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Photo: Reuters

Since taking the helm from Craig Shakespeare, Claude Puel has masterminded something of a quiet revolution at Leicester City.

Having taken over a side that had won just five games in all competitions in 2017/18, a mere two of those coming in the league (D3, L4), the Frenchman has successfully steadied the ship at the King Power Stadium, winning six and drawing four of his fifteen matches in charge across all competitions.

Notable results include a 4-1 drubbing of Puel’s former club Southampton at St. Mary’s, a 2-2 home draw with Manchester United, and a valiant EFL Cup exit via penalty kicks after holding Manchester City to a 1-1 draw.

Such form has lifted the Foxes from the bottom three to the heady heights of the top ten, but Puel will be under no illusions that he must get this transfer window right to continue his revival in the East Midlands.

His predecessor, Craig Shakespeare, will know this only too well, the summer transfer window proving particularly costly to his short tenure.

Having lost Danny Drinkwater to Chelsea at the eleventh hour of Deadline Day, Leicester had his ready-made replacement Adrien Silva ready and waiting to arrive from Sporting Lisbon, only for FIFA to declare the Portugal international ineligible until January since his transfer paperwork arrived fourteen seconds beyond the deadline.

Such a scenario is unlikely to repeat itself, but even with Adrien Silva now joining his teammates in Premier League action and lessening the need for any reinforcements in centre-midfield, the Foxes have their work cut-out this month, particularly with question marks hanging over Riyad Mahrez’s future at the club in the midst of interest from Arsenal and Liverpool.

Yet Claude Puel is unlikely to make wholesale changes to a squad that all things considered, is performing well under his tutelage.

Interestingly, Puel is understood to wish to hold onto Algerian winger Mahrez and his compatriot, £29.7 million man Islam Slimani, despite the latter’s lack of action this season, according to Sky Sports journalist Michael Kelleher.

The report does hint that the Foxes boss may be prepared to part company with Ahmed Musa, though, but a replacement may not be an urgent requirement given the form of Mahrez and Demarai Gray on the opposite flank.

Slimani’s cool finish in Leicester’s recent Premier League win over Huddersfield showcased what the former Sporting Lisbon man still has to offer, and retaining him would sustain much of Leicester’s strength in depth going forward.

Strengthening out wide may depend entirely on where Mahrez finds himself come the closure of the window, but in any case what the Foxes do lack is a creative player capable of filling out the ‘number 10’ role.

One such player who fits the bill for this, and can equally be deployed on either flank is a familiar name to the Premier League and a former colleague of Claude Puel at OGC Nice, PSG misfit Hatem Ben Arfa.

Ben Arfa has proven himself capable of playing in the Premier League, but established a reputation as being a gifted yet inconsistent player during his time with Newcastle and Hull in the top-flight.

Puel was able to coax the best out of Ben Arfa during his season-long spell on the French Riviera. However, his goals helping fire Les Aiglons to a fourth place finish in Ligue 1 in 2015/16 and a place in the Europa League.

Such form earned Ben Arfa his big money move to PSG, where he has since failed to make the grade, and a move to the East Midlands to re-unite with his former boss may be just the transfer required to re-ignite his career.

Puel’s personal relationship with the player may be the deciding factor in swaying the tide in favour of any such move for the player, but there is no doubt that Ben Arfa would not only offer Leicester another exciting attacking and creative option, given the Frenchman’s penchant for running at defenders.

Meanwhile, he has also proven himself a capable source of goals, something which Leicester lack in their frontline, bar the diminutive talent of Jamie Vardy.

The lack of goals elsewhere in attack is something that Puel has already set about remedying, though. The Foxes have a knack for identifying talent in the French Ligue 2, with Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaert (now of Brighton) just two signings plundered from the division over the years that have become big hits at the King Power.

Leicester’s French manager has recently been shopping in the French second tier in search of a striker, with Mali U-23 international Fousseni Diabate having completed a move from Corsican side Gazélec Ajaccio.

Diabate is a natural forward, but much like Ben Arfa can be deployed either in the ‘number 10’ role or on either flank, and he has featured out wide for the majority of the campaign for Gazélec, where he has started all but two of their matches in all competitions this season after making the drop from Ligue 1 outfit Guingamp.

He has netted three goals and assisted once in that time, featuring alongside Grégoire Puel, son of Leicester boss, Claude.

As a wide-man, the signing of Diabate will directly plug the hole vacated by Ahmed Musa should the Nigerian leave, but if Puel opts to use the Malian as a forward, that could spell the end of peripheral figure Leonardo Ulloa’s time at the club.

With Puel wanting to keep Slimani at the club, as well as handing regular game-time to Shinjo Okazaki, getting the Argentinian off the club’s books whether permanently or on loan, would be a sensible option, with Aston Villa reportedly interested in acquiring his services, as well as those of midfielder Daniel Amartey.

Puel has already declared his intent to keep summer signing Kelechi Iheanacho at the club despite his lack of minutes, thus with Diabate’s arrival the Frenchman has more than enough options in the forward position  should Ulloa leave.

The departure of Amartey may be less likely, but Matt James’ return to fitness would cushion the blow in the event of any move.

One other area which Puel may look to add cover in during the transfer window is central defence. The Frenchman has options in Aleksandar Dragovic and Yohan Benalouane as back-up to Wes Morgan and Harry Maguire, but with Robert Huth still no closer to a return following surgery on an ankle problem, Puel could look to add another option to the ranks.

His need for reinforcements would certainly increase should there be any substance to reports from The Sun linking Maguire to a £50 million approach from Manchester City.

Although Sky Sports report that Puel is unfazed by such speculation, suggesting it is unlikely that capped England international Maguire, who only joined the Foxes in the summer, will be heading anywhere, there are still realistic options for Puel to turn to for cover to his back-four and to bolster the back-line should Maguire leave.

Two of these options are players the Foxes were linked to during the summer, West Brom’s Jonny Evans and Middlesbrough defender Ben Gibson.

Gibson may be the likelier of the two options given Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s known admiration of Jonny Evans, but either defender would be a reliable option to partner Wes Morgan should Maguire depart, or even challenge the regular centre-half pairing for a starting spot.

Evans would be the more experienced option to turn to, but the signing of Gibson would constitute a positive investment in the future of the Leicester defence, with Morgan and the injured Robert Huth both nearing the twilight of their careers at the age of 33.

Yohan Benalouane himself is 30, thus age is most certainly a factor for the Foxes to consider, and Puel may look to youth if he wishes to revitalise his defence.

He certainly seems to be doing so elsewhere in the team with his desire to develop Kelechi Iheanacho further as well as signing the youthful Diabate, and it wouldn’t be surprising if building for the future proves the way of things on the whole this January at the King Power. It certainly appears to be shaping up that way.

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