On the day that Angel di Maria became the most expensive player in the history of English football, Riyad Mahrez was playing in a League Cup defeat to Shrewsbury. Mahrez was a £450,000 signing who had just made his first two top-flight appearances for Leicester City as Manchester United paid £59.7 million for a Champions League winner and World Cup finalist.
Fast forward seven years and there was a different tale of two left-footed right wingers in Manchester City’s 2-0 win on Tuesday. Di Maria was sent off for a swipe.
“They started kicking us and it was good,” said Mahrez. And if Fernandinho was the man Di Maria lashed out at, Mahrez represented the major source of frustration.
Paris Saint-Germain could not handle him; at times, they could not get near enough to kick him. Perhaps the standout moment of the Algerian’s night was not either of his goals, but when he ghosted away from Presnel Kimpembe with a glorious, effortless piece of skill. Marquinhos executed a block to deny Mahrez a hat-trick but a Champions League semi-final had become his stage.
City’s efforts to clear the hail off the pitch at half-time included equipping the stadium manager with spades to shovel it off. While others had struggled with the conditions, Mahrez felt the exception, his balance enabling him to drift and glide and the change direction without warning. PSG, the conquerors of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, could not cope with Mahrez.
His golden year came with Leicester, when his 17 goals and 13 assists helped render them champions. Yet this has been his greatest week; he became only the second Premier League player, after Sadio Mane, to end a Champions League semi-final with three goals. The tie was previewed with many a reference to Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but Mahrez decided it. Suddenly, he feels one of the best players in the world.
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“Riyad is extraordinary,” said Pep Guardiola. “He has huge quality. Players are judged how they behave in the big tests. He is always ready. He loves it and enjoys it. Three goals over the tie deserves big compliments.”
City’s charge through the knockout stages has been led by Mahrez. He has either scorer or assisted a goal in five consecutive games. His pass for Kevin de Bruyne’s goal at home to Borussia Monchengladbach may feel a footnote in their season but his cutback for De Bruyne’s equaliser in the first leg against Borussia Dortmund was altogether more important, as was the nerveless penalty in the second. Then came his free kick in Paris and his brace in Manchester.
His first showed a predatory streak; in a world without Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and one or two others, it would have attracted more attention that Mahrez is in double figures for goals for a sixth successive year.
His second felt more revealing of City’s tactics. In a system with a false nine, or even two, the wingers can be City’s most advanced players. So they were when Phil Foden scooted clear and, bypassing the gap in the middle where a specialist striker might have been, found Mahrez to sweep in his shot.
Each has usurped Raheem Sterling for a place in the side, displacing a winger who scored 31 times last season. It is a sign of their impact. There is another prolific finisher they have rendered surplus to requirements. Guardiola showed his sentimental side by bringing on Sergio Aguero for a late cameo. A decade ago, the Argentinian started in City’s maiden Champions League game. Perhaps he will play his last game for them in the culmination of a long journey: the Champions League final.