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Riyad Mahrez: Does title-winning strike salvage disappointing season?

5:00 PM IST 14/05/19
Riyad Mahrez Manchester City 2018-19
The Algeria international reaffirmed his quality against Brighton on Sunday as Manchester City clinched the Premier League crown

The redemption arc is a staple of narrative literature.

Human beings are intrinsically flawed, but the desire to right wrongs and atone for misdeeds or underperformance provides a means by which an individual’s moral trajectory can at least weight toward the positive.

Riyad Mahrez, slight of frame and swift of foot, is no club-wielding, lion fur-wearing, Hellenic hero. Neither, for that matter, is Brighton a menacing, multi-headed terato-nightmare. The Seagulls may have led the foul count in the Premier League in the season past, and certainly played with real intensity, but there is even a likeability to them, perhaps on account of erstwhile manager Chris Hughton.

However, it was at the Amex Stadium that the Algeria international completed his redemption, righting a season of disappointment with 37 minutes left on the clock. It was trademark Mahrez in a Year One that has been anything but, one which began with him breaking Manchester City’s all-time transfer record, but threatened to culminate in abject disappointment...until Sunday.

As the English top flight title race went down to the wire, it seemed ever more likely that Pep Guardiola’s side would come to rue that bit of business, both a micro and macro level.

By no account has the acquisition of Mahrez, 2016’s PFA Player’s Player of the Year, been an unqualified success. The transition from Leicester City, where his outrageous talent translated to free rein all over the pitch, to the Etihad and Guardiola’s insistence on positional play and wingers patiently stretching the play by staying as wide as possible, has not been seamless.

Riyad Mahrez | 2018-19 Premier League stats

Indeed, after the initial honeymoon period, in which he featured in all but one match day in the first half of the season, he found appearances rarer to come by. As the stakes of the title race cranked up, the 28-year-old’s season seemed to wind down: he missed 10 of the final 19 matches as City went into zen mode, winning a staggering 14 in a row.

Gone were the bombastic scorelines – the champions only thrice scored more than two goals in a game in that stretch – but the need for control and security necessitated an even more mechanized approach than usual, and within that context Mahrez’s flourishes would have been somewhat superfluous.

That, by itself, is easy to justify: by nature a tetchy hypochondriac, Guardiola reverting to the familiar in a high-pressure situation would have come as no surprise, and would not necessarily have been an indictment on Mahrez...but for The Miss.

On the 7th of October, 2018, eight games into the season, Manchester City went to Anfield, the home of their closest rivals, and came away with a goalless draw. As it turns out, it was a good result, but for so long it felt like it, and the circumstances surrounding it, would see City regret not killing off the Reds on the day.

It was hardly a vintage performance, and it is close to the furthest from the classic Pep ideal football-wise, although doubtless serial biographer Marti Perarnau will enlighten us on the Spaniard’s thought process in time.

In terror of the Liverpool press that had torn his side to shreds the season before, he set his side out to focus play down the flanks, favouring two banks of four without the ball and refusing to allow the hosts the pressing opportunities upon which they gleefully revel.

It was a percentage play, and it almost came off. In a game of few chances and ultimate attrition, City won a penalty with four minutes of the regulation 90 left on the clock.

Up stepped Mahrez, and while a somewhat reductive analysis, it was an early chance to justify the heavy investment in him.

His effort, sailing high over the top, seemed for so long like the pivotal point of the title race.

That it came less than two months into the season encapsulates quite how relentless the principal actors have been, but for all that City eventually clawed back a deficit that at one time stood at seven points, that moment needed to be atoned for.

There is a neat psychological symmetry then to the manner in which the season ended, in that having afforded Liverpool that reprieve early on, his performance on the final day so emphatically wrenched away all hope.

It might have been too much to ask of Brighton, but when Glen Murray glanced in a corner early on, it seemed that the red half of Merseyside, its coast almost perpetually blanketed in a cloying fog of hope, might dare to believe.

Aptly then, Mahrez, starting in the league for the first time since early April, took it away from them; first with a pinpoint corner delivery which was powered home by Aymeric Laporte, and then with a trademark shuffling of the feet before sweeping home for 3-1.

As a microcosm of his season, it was the perfect game: a slow start, redeemed by a sudden flourish at the end, a reminder of his abiding quality. A performance to save a season.