Liverpool stars Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are the biggest names heading to the Total Africa Cup Nations (AFCON) in Egypt, but before those two lighted up the English Premier League there was a certain Riyad Mahrez.
The Algerian was the biggest African star in the Premier League prior to Salah arrival. He played a major role in Leicester’s shock premier league win in the 2015/2016 season scoring 17 goals and chipping in 10 assists.
His form in that campaign saw him become the first African to win the Professional Footballers’ Association Men’s Players’ Player ahead of the likes Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane. However, his form tailed off the following season, scoring just six goals along with four assists. But despite the form, he was snapped up by Manchester City who broke their club transfer record to sign him at the end of 2017/2018 season.
Although he made a total of 44 appearances for the Citizens at the just concluded season, his performances did not justify the £60m the Premier League champions paid for him. In 38 premier league games, Mahrez only started 14 games, contributing just seven goals and four assists.
Mahrez’s performance drew speculations that Pep Guardiola could be willing to part away with the 27-year-old after just one season. But he squashed those speculations after the former Barcelona manager selected him in the starting line up of the game against Brighton and Hove Albion on the final day of the season.
That gamble was rewarded when Mahrez scored an outstanding goal to put City 3-1 up, in effect settling the outcome, and it was the kind of impact he felt positive about making. While Mahrez may have given a good performance in City’s title-winning game against the Seagulls, the former Leicester forward still needs to work harder to convince Pep and his critics he’s still one of the best.
It’s something Mahrez himself admitted after the match against Seagulls. “It’s not easy to come to a team who are settled and have the players who play,” he said. “That squad did everything last season. I knew it wouldn’t be easy in my first year but I’m very confident in myself and have no doubts about my quality.
With the AFCON coming up, Mahrez has an opportunity to shut his critics up and also convince Pep that he can be trusted next season. Algeria go into the tournament as one of the favourites and have been drawn against tournament top side, Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania.
Mahrez is Algeria’s biggest star and all eyes will be on him to show that he won’t be overshadowed by the likes of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah. With Manchester City fully stocked in all departments, Mahrez knows that he can’t afford to have a below par performance in Egypt.
Many felt Mahrez would have a better chance of convincing Pep if he has a full pre-season training under him. Given what happened to Leroy Sane last season, Mahrez is better off going to the Nations Cup. Leroy Sane who was the PFA young player in 2017/2018 season was shockingly left out of Germany’s 2018 World Cup and that gave him a chance to have a full pre-season training.
However, it did not have an effect on him as he struggled for the most part of the season, while Guardiola was angry with his contributions and overlooked him for the beginning of the season. With Mahrez also suffering the same fate as Sane last season. It may not do Mahrez any harm to spend this summer spearheading Algeria’s push for silverware instead before returning to Manchester rejuvenated and ready to slot straight back into club football.
Mahrez said after the season he won’t be leaving Manchester City but will need to come up with the goods when the Nations Cup kicks off to show he can be a vital player for Guardiola next season. “I’m very happy here,” Mahrez said. “I’m not going somewhere else because I don’t play. It’s part of the game. I need to be strong, stay strong. It’s part of my personality. I never hide from things.”
Algeria were eliminated in the group stage at the 2017 edition and increases the pressure on Mahrez to lead the team to a first Nations Cup title since 1990. Speaking at Algeria’s training camp recently, Mahrez admitted he knows the pressure on him going into the competition but insists all his going well. “Yes, all is going well with the coach, thank God, the fans are behind us like always, we feel that everything is going well for the moment, God willing we will improve more,” said the Algerian midfielder.
Knowing there’s so much at stake both at National team and club level, Mahrez will go to Egypt with a mission to prove to his critics he’s still one of the best players the beautiful game has ever seen.