The Ivorian colossus did more than anyone to create the modern Citizens, but their Algerian playmaker may be the one to finally deliver the UCL
The effusion with which the end of David Silva’s time at Manchester City was greeted left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.
Not because the Spaniard was any less than spectacularly great for the Citizens. Far from it. Silva’s silky movements and wand of a left foot conducted many a Premier League game. He will also be held up as a living, breathing “proving the haters wrong” meme: able, despite his slight frame, to thrive in a league that has made physicality its calling card.
However, there was another who had an even more transformative influence on the club. Yaya Toure, unsavoury though his latter end was, did not so much subvert the Premier League notions of toughness as beat a path through it. There was very little stealth to it. Toure did not come to play the game, but to be the game.
A lot of the time, it felt like the only limit to his influence on a game was the brief the manager entrusted to him.
Signed as a defensive midfielder from Barcelona, the Ivorian continued to inch forward until he was pretty much playing off the striker, then decided it would be a good idea to start whipping free-kicks into the top corner. Capable in the air, and also able, even on an off day (he did not have many of them), of scoring out of nothing – witness his nonchalant side-foot finish in a 2-1 defeat at the hands on Arsenal in 2015/16 – Toure was frighteningly complete.
His legacy suffered in his final days at City – cake-gate and the arrival of Pep Guardiola ensuring a far-from-ideal departure. However, it would have been impossible to countenance anything at all damaging his overall perception if, as he had done in the league, he had dragged the club over the line in the Champions League as well.
It is the fascination for a club with all the money in the world; the quest, the Holy Grail. It is why they forked out for Guardiola to begin with. It is why, despite amassing 198 points over the course of two seasons to win two titles, there remains a sense of underachievement in the eyes of the punditry, as well as an air of irritation about the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager.
In Riyad Mahrez, City have another African playmaker who will seek to succeed where Toure arguably failed. The Algeria international already occupies a hallowed position in Leicester hearts, but leading City to the Champions League would make his legacy would be even more complete, and would immediately be the most meaningful achievement of what has been a splendid career.
Sure, he won the title with Leicester. However, whereas the Foxes’ title in 2016 was a rapturous surprise (it was not sought after, even by the most enthusiastic of fans), for City to triumph in Europe has been a goal long-denied.
It would make him a true African great, and complete a gauntlet not many can boast of: league title, domestic cups, Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League. Not even Toure managed that in his pomp; it would place Mahrez in extremely exalted company.
This is, after all, the one piece of silverware Toure was never able to deliver for the club.
He crashed home against Stoke in the 2011 FA Cup final to kickstart the cycle, and set eye-watering records in 2011/12 as City won a first league title in 44 years. In Europe, however, there was not the same level of accomplishment or dominance. On the whole, he only scored seven times for the club in the Champions League – fine for a midfielder, but only one more than Ilkay Gundogan has managed.
It took three tries for the Citizens to even get past the Group Stage in the competition, and a further three before they went past the Round of 16.
In 2015/16, a run to the semi-final was halted by eventual winners Real Madrid. Toure struggled with knee and thigh injuries for much of the run-in, missing the first leg of the semi-final tie, a goalless draw that meant City would have to score in the return. He only lasted 61 minutes in the return at the Bernabeu, a drab match that was settled by Gareth Bale’s freak goal.
That has always been the great “what could have been” moment for Manchester City. Might things have been different if their midfield talisman had been fit?
Saturday presents them with an opportunity to once again reach that stage and forever banish that regret.
There is no strapping midfield colossus anymore; under Guardiola, the team is more unstoppable force than immovable object, built around quick feet that flit about rather than thud.
This side is dependent on smaller technical talent: Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden. Mahrez. Going one better this time around, and ultimately winning it, would not only be the culmination of a decade-long project, but would validate this different approach.
It would also immediately catapult this current crop into legend status at a club that has not been able to boast of a proud history in European competition.
In much the same way that Chelsea reached their Promised Land in 2012 and the likes of John Obi Mikel, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou instantly passed into folklore, Mahrez could become the next African son to ascend to the pantheon of greats by virtue of being a part of City’s history.