The Algeria star has been left out of the XI since the disappointing FA Cup semi-final exit, prompting doubts about his Champions League involvement
It’s never an easy task trying to second-guess a Pep Guardiola team, owing to the Manchester City manager’s propensity to spring the odd surprise in his selection from time to time.
This was a source of frustration for fantasy managers intermittently during the concluded season as, upon selecting Raheem Sterling, chasing his best goal return in the Premier League, or Kevin De Bruyne, desperate to supplant Thierry Henry’s assist record (he equalled it on the final day) in their fantasy teams were then left exasperated by the City trainer’s rotation.
Even though the aforementioned point feels like a deviation from the argument at hand, it is an indicator of just how unpredictable the former Barcelona boss can be with his starting picks. Still, regardless of how unsure the casual observer can be, assumptions can be drawn from whoever Pep selects from the off.
It is for this reason Riyad Mahrez, one of City’s top performers in 2019/20 ought to be worried for his place when the Manchester outfit host the 13-time European champions Real Madrid in the second-leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie at the Etihad Stadium.
Pep largely rotated his side following their domestic restart in June, wisely giving every member of the squad minutes on the pitch, enough game time to stay match fit whilst resting them strategically to avoid burnout in the process. It worked to an extent as the Citizens finished top of the post-lockdown Prem table with eight wins from 10 after the restart, scoring a staggering 34 times and conceding just four.
Mahrez, for his part, scored four times and set up one in the last six weeks despite Pep’s tendency to tweak his XI, but there was a feeling the Algeria winger would be called on for the really important games of their season.
He featured from the start in their comfortable 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final success over Newcastle United and having been retained for the semi-final defeat by Arsenal, both line-ups gave an insight into what the City boss considered his best team for the important games.
The only changes at Wembley saw Ederson, the club’s number one, replace Claudio Bravo, while Eric Garcia, an injury returnee, replaced the unreliable Nicolas Otamendi at the back. The Brazil goalkeeper was always going to feature against Real at the Etihad, so the one outfield change reflected the consistency of Pep’s thinking for crunch games.
In isolation, this may be ignored and brushed off as the Barca legend tinkering with his side as usual, yet, two of the players excluded against the relegated teams have been conspicuous.
The Algeria attacker, after underperforming against Mikel Arteta’s side and previously in the Newcastle fixture, didn’t start at Vicarage Road or in their last match of the season on Sunday and was replaced by the precociously talented Phil Foden in both games. Perhaps an even more noticeable absentee was Benjamin Mendy, whose tendency to blow hot and cold has been a source of frustration for Cityzens since 2017 and especially this season.
Interestingly, Guardiola didn’t turn to Oleksandr Zinchenko, whose form has been sketchy as well, rather opting for Joao Cancelo in their last two fixtures.
Indeed, the decision to leave out Mahrez and Mendy since the Arsenal loss has been magnified by the little rotation that’s taken place in other areas of the pitch.
While it would be unfair to wholly blame the FA Cup loss on both players when the team generally performed poorly, the North African was particularly sterile in possession at the Home of Football and the Frenchman’s failure to step up with the rest of the defenders meant Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was played onside for the Gunners’ second goal.
The left-back also allowed Nicolas Pepe cut in on his stronger foot to cross for the Gabon star’s opener, so the choice to drop two of the side’s major under-performers since that defeat has been seismic.
Putting trust in the ever-improving Foden at Mahrez’s expense and not resorting to the off-form Zinchenko has equally been notable especially with Zinedine Zidane’s side on the horizon.
Whether those changes provide the perfect insight into Guardiola’s thinking before they play Los Blancos or whether the move to utilise the young Englishman and Portuguese full-back out of position was done to jolt a reaction out of the African champion and world champion remains to be seen.
For Mahrez, his impact in the first meeting at Santiago Bernabeu was crucial to securing a huge 2-1 advantage, while his ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat will be important to claim the club’s Holy Grail and end Guardiola’s nine-year wait for another UCL win.
The coach will know this, too, and he’ll hope his maverick Algerian can return to his best as Man City chase European success after their domestic failures this season.