Africa Cup of Nations: Desert Foxes Algeria need Riyad Mahrez to rediscover cunning and guile
The English Premier League has its first reigning Footballers’ Footballer of the Year from Africa. High time, you might think, given that league’s recent history is towered over by figures such as Didier Drogba, totem of many Chelsea titles, and Yaya Toure, galvaniser of Manchester City’s modern ascent.
Neither of those ever garnered quite enough votes from their colleagues. Riyad Mahrez, the wispy winger, broke that glass ceiling last May, elected the most watchable, most creative footballer in the fairy tale that was Leicester City’s startling annexing of the championship of the wealthiest domestic league in the world. The electorate of fellow professionals recognised his own fairy-tale rise matched his employers’.
“Mahrez? Who he?”, asked many in France, where Mahrez was born and grew up, as he emerged as a star of fearless, unsung Leicester through late 2015 and the first half of last year. “Riyad who?”, Algerians had already wondered when he was first picked for their national squad a year earlier, as Leicester chased promotion into the Premier League they would conquer within two seasons of going up.
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Vahid Halilhodzic, the national manager of the so-called Desert Foxes, recalls the scepticism that his decision to call up Mahrez drew ahead of the 2014 World Cup. “There was some incredible criticism of me,” says Halilhodzic, “because when I first considered him, he was not even guaranteed a starting place in the Leicester team in the English Championship. But I saw a player who, even with three opponents on him, could make things happen, and a player who would never panic.”
Mahrez was 23 then, his top-flight experience non-existent. He won his first cap in a friendly just ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, played his first competitive international in Algeria’s opening tournament fixture. The sceptics remained sceptical. He had no significant profile in the eyes of Algerians who followed closely top-level French football. Algerian fans were accustomed to seeing their national team made up predominantly of French-born expatriates like Mahrez, but knew only that Mahrez had not made the grade at any senior French club before moving for a scant €450,000 (Dh1.7 million) from Le Havre in Ligue 2 to Leicester of England’s tier two.
Mahrez did not make a starting place his own with the Algeria who advanced to the knockout stage at the Brazil World Cup. But, by a year later, his countrymen knew for sure his game had a cutting edge and crowd-pleasing skills. He had warrior qualities, too, witnessed as Leicester fought off relegation in the 2014/15 campaign. His credentials as a Premier League competitor were established at the same times as his value to his country. In qualifying for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), he contributed four assists and two goals in six matches.
But if Algerians are now certain of Mahrez’s value, proud they have a global star in a team of several high-class, proven talents, he still goes into his second Afcon, beginning in Gabon this weekend, with points to prove. Algeria have underachieved for most of his time as a first-teamer in the green-and-white jersey. They exited the last Nations Cup at the last-eight stage; they have dropped important points on the road to reaching a third successive World Cup that will make achieving a place at Russia 2018 very hard.
And the peak, golden period of Mahrez’s career, the title-winning campaign with Leicester, when he set up so many goals for Jamie Vardy, scored plenty and seemed to roller-skate past some of the best defenders in his sport, already seems distant. Leicester are currently closer to the threat of relegation than retaining their title. Mahrez’s club manager, Claudio Ranieri, who helped develop his all-round game without discouraging his enterprise and freedom, talked recently of the player feeling stifled: “You watch him and every time he gets the ball he wants to do something special,” said Ranieri, “but opponents know him and he will have three men marking him.”
Last season, he scored 17 Premier League goals and set up 11. More than halfway through this term, he has scored just three times, and assisted in another three goals.
With Algeria, the conditions for building momentum have been stymied, too, by regular changes of manager. In less than three years since Halilhodzic backed his hunch and called up the slight, late-developer from Leicester, three have taken and left the job, the Belgian Georges Leekens assuming command for this Nations Cup.
Leekens will need Africa’s Footballer of the Year to lead, to be to his Desert Foxes what he was last season to the intrepid Foxes of Leicester.
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Updated: January 9, 2017 04:00 AM