May 8, 2021

Man City-Real Madrid a pivotal juncture for Mahrez

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The Algeria international has failed to start in two for Pep Guardiola’s side, and is threatened by the rise of Phil Foden

As the popular saying goes, five weeks is a short time in football. It’s even shorter when you have to cram 12 matches into that timeframe.

With such a deluge of activity, it can be easy to miss the certain trends, or to chalk them up to other factors—physical, mostly.

So when, in the aftermath of Manchester City‘s elimination from the FA Cup at the semi-final stage, Riyad Mahrez found himself consigned to bench duty for the final two matches of the domestic calendar, it may have simply seemed a quirk of rotation, a necessity in the hard slog of a condensed Project Restart.

On both occasions, his place in Pep Guardiola’s often irresistible attack went to youngster and great English hope Phil Foden. Mahrez did enter the fray at half time on the final day hammering of Norwich City, with the score at 2-0, and helped himself to his 11th of the league campaign.

In spite of that, Watford away and Norwich at home marked the first time since the resumption of football that Mahrez failed to start in consecutive matches. That cannot be ignored.

Without necessarily reading too much into the situation, it is clear something turned for Guardiola during that chastening defeat at Wembley. There, Mahrez toiled for an hour, only getting the best of direct opponent Ainsley Maitland-Niles on one occasion, before being replaced.

Afterward, City’s manager gave his verdict on what had gone wrong for his side: “In general we were quite good but [the defeat] was not about this, it was about us not being there in the first half. We were not ready to play an FA Cup semi-final.”

While there were no names mentioned, it was telling that Mahrez was one of his first two substitutions, after which he divined City improved and played much better in the second period.

It marks a jarring turnaround in fortunes for the Algeria international, who to that point was enjoying a particularly productive run in the side.

Concerns over Bernardo Silva’s physical condition following the restart saw Mahrez stake his claim to that spot on the right of the front three, and he posted impressive performances in headline victories over Burnley, Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion.

That all seems to have changed dramatically. Where once it seemed his integration might very well hold the key to Manchester City’s progress in the Champions League, he now faces a question over his involvement in the Round of 16 return leg against Real Madrid in Friday.

City hold a 2-1 lead from the first leg at the Bernabeu, where the 29-year-old started and impressed. Perhaps his superior experience might weight the consideration in his favour, and mean he starts at the Etihad Stadium anyway.

However, Foden has clearly come on in Guardiola’s estimation, and this time it is entirely down to that spectre of inconsistency that has dogged Mahrez’s steps since his switch to the blue half of Manchester.

It now threatens to undermine him, not just this season, but next as well: Foden will be even more of an option, but perhaps the biggest indication that Pep has run out of patience is the club’s purchase of winger Ferran Torres.

Mahrez and Guardiola always did seem an odd mix; for all that the Spaniard is considered the avant garde in tactical thinking, his style of play is very intolerant of mercurial players who can turn a game in a flash of inspiration, but will also drift and flit in and out of matches on occasion. It can seem cold, but it was efficient and successful enough to secure back-to-back league titles.

Ferran, as close to a throwback wide player as is possible in the modern game, will reintroduce the width and depth with which City used to so utterly stretch and rend teams.

The injury and subsequent sale of Leroy Sane meant Guardiola was denied that weapon this season, and while that alone cannot be blamed for the yawning breach between his side and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table, the acquisition of the highly-rated Valencia youngster is certainly an attempt to recapture that old magic.

Quite where this leave Mahrez is difficult to understand, and that only lends greater significance to what Guardiola decides on Friday night.

However, here is the rub: leaving him out would say a lot, but selecting him wouldn’t necessarily do the same. Whatever the case, it just seems like a pivotal moment in his City career.