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Riyad Mahrez: how the Algerian sensation is returning to his best

Receiving the ball on the edge of the box, Riyad Mahrez looks up to find Lewis Dunk looming ahead of him. He looks to shoot with his left, only to pull it inside and send Dunk sliding like a selfless bodyguard looking to shield his President from a bullet.

But the assassin in this case, Mahrez, loads the bullet with his lesser favoured right foot and fires it past Matt Ryan into the top corner. City now lead 3-1, and they can taste the Premier League title at last. However, Mahrez’s decisive contribution seemed like a gift from the friendly neighbour rather than one from inside the family.

In the 37 Premier League games before that day, Mahrez started just thirteen. Thirteen more came from the bench in his debut season at City. The Algerian scored seven and assisted a further four; numbers which most wingers would crave with his playing time. But he did not seem like an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s machine. It appeared as if he was being meshed in slowly, much like Bernardo Silva the season before. Seven games into the new season, Mahrez looks like a vital cog in the side.

The Algerian was terrific against Everton on Saturday as City navigated a tricky away tie to keep the pressure on leaders Liverpool. He scored the decisive second goal in the 3-1 win, a perfectly placed free-kick from outside the box. However, his goal was not the most impressive part of his display. In a team in which Kevin De Bruyne is operating at a ridiculous level, Mahrez was the creative hub at Goodison Park. He created four chances, but that tells just half the story.

The xG tally for those shots was 1.44, out of which two stood out. Gundogan hit the woodwork from four yards out to waste a glorious swerving cross from Mahrez. Raheem Sterling was jealous of the German’s wastefulness, so he one-upped Gundogan. Mahrez’s immaculately timed pass in the 59th minute was sent wide by Sterling. Thankfully for City, Mahrez bailed them out with the winner later on. His combination play with De Bruyne was brilliant, and their exchange of passes was too swift for Lucas Digne and Fabian Delph to handle.

Mahrez has two goals and three assists to his name already, as City embark upon another game of ‘who blinks first’ with Liverpool. As it turns out, City have blinked twice already; against Tottenham and Norwich. Guess who didn’t start both games? That’s right, this silky Algerian. Aside from his unquestionable ability, Mahrez’s path to the starting eleven has become easier.

Leroy Sane’s injury has meant that Sterling is the only player comfortable to play on the left wing. That leaves just Bernardo Silva as competition on the right, but the Portuguese plays in midfield as well. If recent performances are anything to go by, Mahrez should stake claim to the spot. Leaving scope for the inevitable rotation from Pep, of course.

But even the perfectionist Guardiola is purring about his African maestro. “All this season he is playing outstanding. The action on the first goal, the second one, the two assists he did, one especially to Raheem. His commitment defensively. One year he was the best player in the league so is an exceptional player. I’m happy for him because he’s playing at an incredible level.”

Pep also alluded to the fact that Mahrez won the African Cup of Nations in the summer, which has added to the Algerian’s overall arsenal. “I think the Africa Cup [of Nations] made him believe how good he can be,” Guardiola said. “He knows it, but I think it helps to win this kind of trophy for Algeria, for his country.”

It seems like people have forgotten how good Riyad Mahrez actually is. His success with Leicester in the historic season was unprecedented, but Mahrez has not been in many headlines since. Thankfully for anyone whose eyes crave for beautiful football, that’s not the case this season. Mahrez at his best is like a supple leopard, gliding across the turf as he jinks his way past defenders with his wand of a left foot. If that wand continues to cast spells like this until May, we are in for a treat.

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