Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Riyad Mahrez living Mohamed Salah's dream with Algeria's Africa Cup of Nations glory

The Manchester City forward's role as captain helped his country win the continent's premier championship for only second time in their history

Fresh from success in England with his Premier League side, the hero returned to his Arab nation and inspired them to victory in the Africa Cup of Nations.

That was the expected narrative before the action began in Egypt in June, and that was exactly how it unfolded when the competition concluded on Friday night in Cairo.

The twist, though, was that it was Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez who was taking the plaudits as Algeria won the tournament for only the second time in their history after beating Senegal 1-0 in the final.

Hosts Egypt had been expected to sweep all before them, inspired by captain Mohamed Salah, who had just weeks earlier won the Uefa Champions League with Liverpool.

Yet it was Mahrez, a treble-winner with City, who added more silverware to his trophy cabinet after inspiring his country's rise to champions of Africa.

It was Mahrez, not Salah, who took centre stage as he received the trophy from Fifa president Gianni Infantino to begin the Algerian celebrations at the Cairo International Stadium.

Friday was not Mahrez's best performance at the tournament. He was a bystander, at least in terms of seeing the ball, for much of proceedings as Algeria, having taken a fortuitous early lead through Baghdad Bounedjah's deflected effort, were content to sit back and soak up what Senegal had to offer.

Algeria had only conceded two goals in their previous six games before Friday, so manager Djamel Belmadi's faith in his defence, despite a brief scare when a penalty for handball was given before being overturned on VAR, was well placed.

But Mahrez's role should not be underestimated. As captain, he led well throughout the competition. This was not just a Premier League superstar coming back for personal glory.

He rallied and cajoled his teammates on Friday, encouraging them to dig in as Senegal tried to find a leveller. Mahrez was one of the boys and it showed in his behaviour and how his compatriots reacted to him.

The 28 year old is not unfamiliar with surprise success. He was instrumental in Leicester City's stunning rise from being relegation favourites to Premier League champions in the 2015-16 season.

He now plies his trade for Manchester City and his 11 goals played a part in Pep Guardiola's men sweeping all before them in England last season.

That form came with him to Egypt with three goals, the free-kick in stoppage time that won the semi-final against Nigeria the most memorable and important.

Being the biggest name in an international team is not always easy. Just ask Lionel Messi and Salah after their efforts this summer.

You've done it for your club - now do it for your country. That is the ethos it seems. Fans expect brilliance on demand from their heroes.

The maligned Messi and Argentina failed at the Copa America. Salah had a water bottle thrown at him as he tearfully left the field after Egypt's shock second-round exit to South Africa.

Mahrez is living their dream. He will be feted in his country. The face of only the second Algerian side to win the Africa title, and the first to do it on foreign land.

He and his teammates will get a heroes reception when they return to Algiers.

It is unlikely he will have too much time to reflect on his achievements, with City's title defence beginning in three weeks. But whatever happens, Mahrez will always have the summer of 2019 to look back on.

Updated: July 20, 2019 01:50 PM

SHARE

SHARE