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.
Leicester City 1-1 Bournemouth: Three talking points from the King Power
Riyad Mahrez’s stunning 97th-minute free-kick rescued a point for Leicester City against Bournemouth.
Mahrez, who had been heavily linked with a move to Manchester City in the January transfer window, curled the ball past Asmir Begovic from 30 yards to deny the Cherries victory in a grandstand finish at the King Power Stadium.
Joshua King had given Bournemouth a first-half lead when he stepped up to dispatch a spot-kick after being fouled inside the area.
The Foxes threw everything at their opponents in the second period but had to wait until deep into added-time for a dramatic equaliser.
Here are three talking points…
Redemption for Mahrez after troubling period
The Algerian’s attempts to engineer a switch to City and subsequent failure to report to training had not been well received by Leicester supporters.
Mahrez had been a key figure in the Foxes’ phenomenal Premier League title triumph two years ago, but his reputation suffered a battering when he made it clear he saw his future away from the club.
After a difficult period for all involved, Mahrez is back in the fold and now back in the fans’ good books.
His last-minute goal against the Cherries certainly was evidence of his redemption.
Thirty yards out, the 27-year-old started the ball outside the wall and watched it bend back past Begovic’s outstretched right hand.
Leicester, who have never beaten Bournemouth in the top-flight, are winless in five Premier League matches, but they remain eighth in the table.
With Mahrez’s reintegration seemingly complete, a fruitful finish to the season could even help them push for a European place.
Howe ‘disgusted’ as Bournemouth concede so late
Bournemouth’s backs had been firmly up against the wall in the second half as they sought to hold on to their tenuous advantage.
It looked to have been a worthwhile effort until Mahrez’s moment of magic.
A share of the spoils was probably fair in the context of the game, but Cherries manager Eddie Howe admitted he felt ‘disgusted’ after watching the visitors concede so late.
Only four minutes of stoppage-time had been scheduled, but an injury to Simon Francis as well as a substitution meant referee Lee Probert played nearly double that amount.
Despite missing out on what would have been a crucial win, Bournemouth are edging towards safety.
They have lost only once since Christmas, a run that has helped them climb out of the relegation zone and amass 33 points.
Two more victories from their remaining nine fixtures should be enough to secure Premier League football for a fourth successive campaign.
Summer will be a key time for both clubs
In a league that is dominated by the so-called ‘Big Six’, the primary aim of the other 14 clubs is survival.
As mentioned above, both Leicester and Bournemouth are all but guaranteed to be playing in the top-flight next season.
The question for both in the summer will be, how can they push on?
The first job for the Foxes’ hierarchy and manager Claude Puel will be deciding the future of Mahrez.
Do they cash in on their star player and reinvest the funds into the squad, or do they try to tie him down to a new contract?
Bournemouth’s ambitions are perhaps not as high as Leicester’s, but after finishing ninth last season, another mid-table position will consolidate their status as a bona fide Premier League outfit.
On the field, there may be some significant outgoings as Howe looks to freshen his resources.
The out-of-favour Harry Arter is one player who looks likely to leave the south coast.
Off the field, the club will hope its plans for a new stadium get closer to becoming a reality.
Manchester City 5-1 Leicester City: Sergio Aguero issues timely reminder to Pep Guardiola
Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the Etihad as Manchester City dismantled challengers Leicester City, 5-1, to continue their pursuit of the Premier League title.
Sergio Aguero scored four second-half goals as Manchester City blitzed Leicester City to take another step towards the Premier League title.
Raheem Sterling’s third-minute opener was cancelled out by Jamie Vardy, as both teams went into half-time level-pegging.
Then came the fireworks.
Aguero netted his first on 48 minutes before putting another three past Kasper Schmeichel, with his fourth and final goal coming on the 90-minute mark.
City’s victory, coupled with Manchester United’s surprising 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United, extended their advantage at the top to the table to 16 points.
Leicester, meanwhile, remain in eighth spot despite enduring a torrid evening at the hands of Aguero and co.
Here are three talking points…
Aguero issues a timely reminder to Pep Guardiola
There is only one place to start.
At times, this has been a difficult season for the Argentinian sharpshooter, who has often played second fiddle to Gabriel Jesus in the crunch fixtures and cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines.
However, the Brazilian’s injury opened the door for Aguero and he has barged through, reminding Pep Guardiola why he can still play a major role as City fight on three fronts; in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
Aguero was at his predatory best against a Leicester side that were far too accommodating in the second period and, with Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings in behind, the Argentine has the perfect foil.
All the talk right now is about Harry Kane, but Aguero is only two goals behind the Tottenham man in the goalscoring charts, after netting in his seventh straight game at the Etihad.
This tally has also seen the 29-year-old surpass 20 goals for the fourth successive season.
Off-field issues undermine Leicester
With such a major distraction off the pitch this week, a visit to the runaway leaders was not the ideal fixture for Leicester manager Claude Puel.
Riyad Mahrez had dominated the headlines in light of his failure to report for training.
A U-turn saw him make himself available for the City clash, but at such short notice he was only afforded a place in the substitutes bench, coming on just after the hour mark.
Mahrez has acted unprofessionally after a deadline-day move to City was blocked by the club and he will have bridges to build with the club’s supporters.
When Vardy scored for the fourth game in succession to equalise, those fans would have hoped that they could return to the Midlands with a point.
Alas, City flexed their muscles after the interval and extinguished such aspirations.
But Leicester, in the comfort of eighth spot, can hopefully look forward with their best player back in the right frame of mind.
De Bruyne sparkles like a real diamond
This week, Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard was honoured with Belgium’s player of the year award.
Perhaps that was the spur for de Bruyne to produce another virtuoso performance.
He was always at the heart of City’s attacking play, the conductor of the orchestra who is at the peak of his powers.
De Bruyne assisted City’s first three goals to take his tally for the season to 14 – four more than his nearest challenger.
The cross that teed up Sterling was perfectly weighted, so was the delivery that enabled Aguero to open his account.
Another sumptuous ball from de Bruyne for the Argentinian left him with the opportunity to double his tally, which he duly took.
Football is subjective, but it is hard to believe at present there is a better midfielder in Europe than de Bruyne – that includes Hazard.
Belgium are fortunate to have them both in their ranks.
Wrapping them up in cotton wool will be crucial to their World Cup bid.
How do Leicester City solve a problem like Riyad Mahrez?
January interest from Manchester City has turned the head of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Now it is down to the Foxes hierarchy to dictate the Algerian’s short term future, writes Rob Meech.
As bargains go, few can beat Leicester City’s capture of Riyad Mahrez.
Signed from French outfit Le Havre for the nominal fee of £320,000 in January 2014, the Algerian has exceeded all expectations to become one of the world’s best footballers.
Mahrez played a starring role in arguably the biggest shock in British sporting history, as the Foxes defied odds of 5,000-1 to lift the Premier League trophy in 2016.
The 26-year-old dazzled spectators with his mazy runs and goals, scoring 17 times in total.
Cutting in from the right wing and curling the ball past the goalkeeper’s outstretched right glove was his trademark.
The nucleus of that title-winning side has since disbanded, with Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante having both swapped the King Power Stadium for Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.
Mahrez had pledged his future to the Foxes in the months following their sensational triumph, putting pen-to-paper on a bumper four-year-contract.
However, speculation linking the 2016 PFA Player of the Year with a transfer grew and after a disappointing campaign both personally and collectively, he announced his wish to leave the Midlands outfit, saying he felt it was the time to ‘move on.‘
A number of clubs were linked with him, but a move failed to materialise.
After initially being omitted from the starting line-up in the early stages of this season, the appointment of Claude Puel revitalised Mahrez, who reminded everyone why he had been so highly coveted.
Since then, his relationship with Leicester has turned sour.
Sanctioning his departure on deadline day would have given Leicester very little time to sign a replacement.
Moreover, any potential deal would have been greatly inflated, with clubs wise to Leicester’s sudden windfall. Mahrez though, has effectively gone on strike.
He has not appeared at training this week and skipped the club’s past two fixtures.
Mahrez believes he has been denied his dream move.
He has given the club another 18 months of his career after they won the Premier League and in that time has seen the club sell the likes of Drinkwater and Kante.
Now, he feels the club should repay his loyalty. Instead, he feels betrayed.
It leaves Leicester in a predicament.
Even if Mahrez reported for training, it is likely he would incur a heavy fine and/or suspension.
It is hard to believe his team-mates feel anything other than let down by their star player.
By refusing to work at the club that pays his handsome wages, he is also damaging his reputation among the fans, who worshipped him as a hero.
One course of action for Leicester is to banish Mahrez to the reserves, much like Southampton did with Virgil van Dijk.
In reality, the hierarchy will understand it makes no sense in the long-term.
Selling their prized asset for an amount that meets their valuation, at a time that enables them to identify a replacement, would be best for both parties.
On top of the financial aspect is the effect this saga is having on the squad.
In an environment as highly charged as the Premier League, unwanted distractions can have major impacts.
Ultimately, there are rules that must be obeyed and respected.
No player can be allowed to breach his contract and go AWOL just because he doesn’t get what he wants.
Mahrez is tied to Leicester until 2020, a contract he was more than happy to sign.
He is in a privileged position and his childish behaviour only enhances the disconnect between footballers and the man on the street.
Reopening dialogue with the club and apologising for his actions would be a first step towards reconciliation.
Mahrez’s future may lie away from the King Power Stadium, but there are ways and means of going about it. Remaining professional is top of the list.
The supporters deserve better from a man who achieved more than he could possibly have dreamt of at Leicester City.
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