Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals: 'Mahrez the Magician' has the tricks to leave Nigeria bamboozled

Marginalised at Manchester, national jersey hangs more comfortably than ever on captain's shoulders

Riyad Mahrez has been at the centre of Algeria's progress to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
Riyad Mahrez has been at the centre of Algeria's progress to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

For all the efficiency of Algeria’s progress to the last four of the Africa Cup of Nations, and their meeting with Nigeria in Cairo on Sunday, let there be no doubt that emotions are simmering.

They were vividly unmasked on Thursday, through tears and through the faces of players and coaches undergoing torture over 12 yards. After four Algeria wins from four, the quarter-final against Ivory Coast had drifted to penalties.

It was the outcome Baghdad Bounedjah feared. Bounedjah, who has been entrusted with bullishly leading a dynamic Algeria forward line, missed an opportunity to put the so-called Desert Foxes 2-0 up from the spot three minutes into the second half.

After 120 minutes, it was 1-1. The regretful striker had been substituted by the time Algeria faced their five spot-kicks so had no chance to make amends.

Bounedjah could barely watch the shootout. His manager, Djamel Belmadi, a jack-in-the-box in the technical area even when his players are mastering matches, choked back sobs at the dramatic climax.

Algeria might have sealed it, at 4-3 up, when Youcef Belaili struck their fifth; he hit the post. Luck then smiled on Belmadi’s men when the final Ivorian kick came back off an upright. Belmadi embraced Bounedjah.

Manager Djamel Belmadi, left, is a jack-in-the-box in the technical area even when his players are mastering matches. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
Manager Djamel Belmadi, left, is a jack-in-the-box in the technical area even when his players are mastering matches. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Meanwhile the captain, more self-possessed, led congratulations and back-slapping. Riyad Mahrez, the skipper, had also been substituted before the lottery of penalties. But he knew, very clearly, just how Bounedjah felt.

Not so long ago, Mahrez was missing a penalty on which everything seemed to hang. And after he stepped up to the spot, playing for Manchester City last October, with the invitation to win their fixture against Liverpool and skied his effort horribly, the moment turned into a sort of lingering symbol of a unfulfilled, flawed year as City’s £61 million (Dh282m) enigma.

Unfulfilled? Mahrez, hero of Leicester City’s Premier League title English football’s Player of the Year in 2016, had by last May won four domestic trophies from 2018/19. That is the sort of concentrated silverware he moved to Manchester 12 months ago to accumulate.

But though he scored 12 goals and provided as many assists last season, he sat on City’s bench more often than he started games in the Premier League. And he could hardly escape reminders that the pursuit of the league title had become a more anxious, tighter affair partly because Mahrez had not scored that autumn spot-kick.

These big moments can act as stern, enduring judgements. Mahrez has experienced it with Algeria as well.

A year before the spooned penalty against Liverpool, he had a penalty saved in a World Cup qualifier, at home to Zambia. On that day any remaining possibility of Algeria salvaging a wretched run and making it to Russia 2018 vanished.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Huddersfield at King Power Stadium on January 1st , 2018 in Leicester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)
LEICESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Huddersfield at King Power Stadium on January 1st , 2018 in Leicester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

After that failed campaign, in came a new Algeria manager, charged with chasing an elusive first Nations Cup triumph since 1990.

Belmadi, 43, was once a talented playmaker with the national team and sees in Mahrez qualities he recognises. Both were born in France; Belmadi also played for Manchester City, although that was long before City could pay £60m-plus for creative wingers, and at a time City could barely aspire to any domestic trophy, let alone all of them.

Under Belmadi, Mahrez was given the skipper's armband. He currently looks as if the national jersey hangs more comfortably than ever on his wiry frame. Mahrez scored the goals, a pair of them, in the 4-1 win over Togo that confirmed a place at this Afcon.

He has scored twice in Egypt, and his goal in the 3-0 win over Guinea in the last-16 was a work of art, a firm cross brilliantly cushioned on his chest to wrong-foot his marker, Issiaga Sylla, and then a waft of that wondrous tool that is Mahrez’s left foot to plant home a curling shot.

No symptoms of superstardom, either. Mahrez was reportedly late - marginally - for a squad meeting in the lead-up to the tournament. So Belmadi left him on the bench for the next friendly. Come the tournament itself, he was quickly gliding past markers in his inimitable style, enjoying freedom to drift in from the right flank.

After five wins from five, he is no longer Marginalised of Manchester but Mahrez the Magician, 90 minutes from leading Algeria's most successful Nations Cup run of his lifetime.

Updated: July 14, 2019 08:07 AM

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