Riyad Mahrez proving his worth at AFCON 2019
Background image: Jackpollock (talk), CC BY 3.0
Leicester City stunned the world in 2016 when the club beat powerhouses Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and City to win the Premier League title. It was achieved through amazing teamwork and a stroke of managerial genius from Claudio Ranieri. A few players stood out as the key men that helped the side accomplish the almost impossible feat...
While Jamie Vardy grabbed the headlines for his goalscoring exploits, Riyad Mahrez shone even brighter for not only scoring but also creating ample chances for his teammates. The Algerian added more to the team with his ability to track back and do his own share of defensive duties, too.
It was not surprising that he was crowned both PFA Player of the Year and Algerian Footballer of the Year. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City came calling shortly after. Despite Leicester’s efforts to keep their man, the right-winger had to leave for bigger things. At City, he hasn't featured with regularity but the 28-year-old has made an impact when given the opportunity. His superb strike against Brighton in City’s last league game of the season served as a reminder of his immense quality. But it is at the ongoing African Cup of Nations that he is grabbing the headlines once again.
The winger has been in inspired form in the tournament for Algeria, scoring important goals as the North African side aims to win another Nations Cup title, which would be their first in 29 years. In what was the team’s biggest test of the tournament so far, a semi-final meeting with a resurgent Nigeria, the Algerians came up trumps.
It was Mahrez who ran the show, setting up the opening goal. But the West Africans battled back equalising from the penalty spot. The Manchester City forward would have the last say netting a superb free-kick in the final minute of extra time to settle the contest and send his side into Friday's showpiece.
However, it’s not just the goals, Mahrez has been firmly amongst the finest players in the tournament so far, if not the standalone best. Wearing the captain's armband, he has carried the hope of a nation, and he has risen to the challenge. After firing his team to the final, the trophy is now within reach. But he is set to face another Premier League star, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
Like Mahrez, the Liverpool forward has been instrumental to Senegal reaching the final. Each will need to be at their best to help their country emerge victorious. But based on how the teams have fared so far, the Algerians have the edge.
First off, the two teams met in the group stage and the Desert Foxes triumphed 1-0. To make matters worse, the Lions Of Teranga are also shorthanded as a key player in defence, Kalidou Koulibaly, will not be eligible for the game. The Napoli defender who has also been one of the standout performers in the competition, received a second yellow card in the semi-final match against Tunisia that ruled him out of the final.
Although manager Aliou Cisse will definitely have a replacement, it will not be easy stepping into the shoes of an elite level centre-back. However, anything can happen in a final as it is more about grit and mentality than the best team on the day winning. But as has been demonstrated time and time again (just as in the semi-final), key players always rise to the fore to create a moment of magic that makes the difference between winning and losing. Stepping up again in the final will seal Mahrez’s place as top dog across the continent. But even if he doesn’t win gold, Mahrez has already shown his value as a top-class player.