Football Features

How Riyad Mahrez became Pep Guardiola’s ‘big-game player’

By CJ Smith

Riyad Mahrez stats Man City

Published: 11:43, 7 May 2021

This Manchester City team will be immortalised in club folklore after reaching their first-ever Champions League final, but one player stands above the rest as the hero of the hour: Riyad Mahrez.

Though his talent has never been in doubt, Mahrez has often come under scrutiny for his ability to deliver consistently for City. Indeed, the Algeria international started just 45 of his 73 combined Premier League and Champions League appearances across his first two seasons for the club. Often, he had to settle for a place on the bench, watching on as the likes of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane tore defences apart.

2020/21 Champions League final odds with William Hill

  • Man City to win in 90 mins: 19/20
  • Chelsea to win in 90 mins: 16/5
  • Draw in 90 mins: 23/10

18+ only.

But as the 2020/21 campaign has gone on, something has changed. Mahrez has developed a habit of stepping up with vital goals and assists in key moments, just when Pep Guardiola needs him most. The former Leicester City man put in two show-stopping performances against PSG in the Champions League semi-finals, scoring three of Man City’s four goals to punch their ticket to Istanbul.

In fact, looking further back, Mahrez has now registered at least one direct goal contribution in each of his last five Champions League appearances, scoring four times and assisting twice during that time. Mahrez started each of those five games, taking down Borussia Monchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund and PSG with ease, while Sterling settled for cameo appearances while warming the bench in every single one.

“Riyad is an extraordinary player – big talent, huge quality, especially in the big games he is always ready,” Guardiola said in Tuesday’s post-match press conference. “We know his quality quite well. He is a fantastic player.

“The players in these stages are judged how they behave in the biggest scenarios, the big tests. He loves it and enjoys it. He made a good goal, the first one with the right foot and the finish for the second. Three goals over the tie, he deserves big compliments.”

Rather modestly, the player himself added: “When you play a semi-final of the Champions League you have to be solid. Everyone has to contribute for the defence and that’s what we did, we were very solid today, we didn’t concede much [and] that’s why we’re in the final.”

It wasn’t just the goals Mahrez scored that caught the eye against PSG. The forward bought right into the defend-from-the-front ethos he talked about after Tuesday’s match. One that is required to progress beyond Neymar and Co. Across the two legs, Mahrez ranked second among his teammates for interceptions (3) and third for tackles (4), while no City player won more possession more times in the attacking third than he did (4).

And when the ball was turned over, Mahrez was a constant menace, attempting no fewer than 10 dribbles (at least three more than any other City player) while beating his opponent with eight of them.

“He twists players up so much. He’s quick, he chops them up. He’s got great awareness when he’s on the ball,” former Man City winger Trevor Sinclair said after the semi-final first leg.

“And I think his end product has been better. He obviously got the goal the other night, he fancied it, despite the poor wall. But his form has been scintillating and he is turning into that world-class player we all thought he could be at Leicester.”

Lightning-fast Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele also added to the praise following that famous night in Paris, picking Mahrez out specifically.

“I like to watch the matches of Riyad Mahrez [and] Leroy Sané,” he said. “Mahrez… every time I watch City games, it’s amazing. Even with Algeria, it is incredible. When he comes one-on-one against you, it’s difficult.”

Across all competitions this season, Mahrez has 14 goals and seven assists. The EFL Cup is already in the bag while the Premier League title is sealed in all but name. This weekend, City will get a good look at their Champions League final opponents, Chelsea.

In 14 career appearances against the Blues to date, Mahrez has just two goals and one assist to his name, so he’ll be keen to boost those numbers here ahead of the trip to Turkey.

William Hill odds for this weekend’s Man City vs Chelsea Premier League clash…

  • Riyad Mahrez to score first: 11/2
  • Riyad Mahrez to score last: 11/2
  • Riyad Mahrez to score any time: 11/5

18+ only.

But even if he doesn’t, the Algerian has already shown a complete disregard for the magnitude of huge European ties. That poor record won’t mean a thing when Mahrez gets out on the pitch in Istanbul, where he will see nothing but another big game he needs to settle.