Football365’s early winner: Riyad Mahrez

Date published: Sunday 5th March 2017 1:00

Both have taken exactly 52 shots this season while playing the same amount of Premier League football (give or take an hour) this season in similar positions, and yet Liverpool’s Sadio Mane is now a 12-goal £34m bargain while Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez is the four-goal £100,000-a-week popinjay who followed in Eden Hazard’s footsteps in winning the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award and then becoming a symbol of just how far your form can dive when you seemingly no longer give a toss.

And yet in the summer of last year it was Mahrez who was linked with PSG and Arsenal while Mane was seen as Liverpool’s lo-fi alternative to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the punchline to too many jokes about the Reds’ transfer policy of simply putting a pin in a list of Southampton players; search ‘Manolo Gabbiadini Liverpool’ on Twitter for more utter hilarity.

Few would have argued that Mane was a better player than Mahrez, perhaps not even Jurgen Klopp, who would have considered the Algerian out of his reach last summer when Champions League teams were reportedly queuing up for the services of a player whose 28 combined Premier League goals and assists made him the fanciest corner of a Leicester title-winning triangle.

It is easy to say in hindsight that Mahrez should have left Leicester last summer as his stock would never be so high again, but it was also incredibly easy to say it at the time; life could never be this good again for either club or player. In truth, few predicted just how badly it would go for both, with Leicester floundering and Mahrez the now-expensive symbol of that pathetic malaise. Very little about Mahrez’s performances this season has hinted at the joys of last, when he glided and ghosted and gathered goals and assists with insatiable greed.

To say that this season’s Mahrez has been a shadow of his former self is to play down the drop in performance; shadows take the same shape as the object they represent, but this Mahrez has been down on his knees. Whether that collapse has been prompted by arrogance, complacency, mutiny or a prolonged hangover is unknown, but it has surely cost him last summer’s fanciful links with Paris, Madrid or Barcelona.

Scouts at Europe’s biggest clubs will not be rushing to re-join a much shorter queue on the back of a wonderful performance against fellow strugglers Hull, but Premier League club managers will watch highlights of Leicester’s second win of the week – illuminated by a stunning solo goal which saw him change direction three times before finishing into the bottom corner – and be assured that the Mahrez that tormented their left-backs last season has merely been in hibernation.

Leicester players have attracted opprobrium aplenty for appearing to increase their energy levels after the exit of their title-winning manager, but this is a selfish business and it has been an excellent week for both the club and their biggest asset. If anybody needed a reminding nudge about the creative force of last season’s title winners, they got it this weekend. Which Mahrez will turn up next season? And in what shirt?

Sarah Winterburn

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