Finally, Riyad Mahrez can focus on football. It’s been a trying time for the Leicester man, with moves to Manchester City and Barcelona falling apart in the previous two transfer windows.
“I was away from here because I needed some time to think” the Algerian admitted in an interview with Sky Sports last week.
“It was a difficult situation.”
Predictably, some Leicester fans mistook Mahrez’s ambitions for disloyalty. His refusal to train or play was met with anger, with his absence from the club labelled as ungrateful and spoilt.
Except that it wasn’t the case at all. Claude Puel, mindful of his player’s mental state, had granted him leave to collect his thoughts. Returning after a few weeks out, Mahrez showed his renewed focus by winning his side a point against Bournemouth with a sumptuous free kick in the 97th minute last week. On Saturday, he was vital again in scoring the crucial second goal in a 4-1 comeback victory at West Brom.
Mahrez admits that he has ‘regrets’ about the January saga, but his intentions for the next transfer window are clear.
“We will see in the Summer if things come. At the moment I’m a Leicester player.”
The question, if he stays in England, is this; where will he go?
Aleksandr Hleb might be a punch line in North London now, but for a while, he was the most talented dribbler in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger was slow to replace his jinking skillset, with Alexis Sánchez in 2014 finally giving his squad a player capable of committing and disorienting defences.
The Chilean, however, never felt like the right fit in Islington, bristling in an inferior squad and stropping regularly. Mahrez might be similarly introspective, but his haughty dribbling and deceptive pace would be a real asset to a squad populated by inconsistent flatterers like Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi.
The Algerian would offer immediate top-level competition to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil, two players with their own tendency to drift through games unchallenged. Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, has a proven record of getting the best out of Francophone players.
At his age, however, Mahrez may find the number of competitors in the red half of North London overwhelming. A move to Spurs might give him a more realistic chance of a first-team spot. Moussa Sissoko is almost certain to leave the club in the Summer, having disappointed since his move from Newcastle a year ago. Lucas Moura, meanwhile, is still finding his feet since arriving from Paris Saint-Germain in January, whilst Erik Lamela has found a place in the first eleven somewhat difficult to pin down.
On the left wing, Heung-Min Son’s place in the side is unassailable. The Korean is the only guaranteed starter in Mauricio Pochettino’s glutton of creative wide men though, meaning that there may be a gap through which the Algerian can force his case. He’d also be a useful deputy for the misfiring Dele Alli, whose form has fallen off a cliff after a stellar campaign last year.
Cheque-ing in with City
Footballing matters won’t be the only concern for Mahrez though. He came to the top-level relatively late, and he will, therefore, be keen to ensure his financial future by getting the best possible monetary deal. In this regard, Manchester City is the most viable option.
Moving to Eastlands might lead to the fewest amount of regular minutes, but it makes the most sense from a financial perspective. Mahrez has proven his ability regularly; alongside N’Golo Kanté, he is the only player from Leicester’s title-winning season that has maintained his level of performance. He may feel that, at this stage of his career, a seat on the bench might be an acceptable sacrifice to make. Also, with Manchester City certain to progress on all fronts next season, he is likely to be afforded considerable opportunities, even as a squad player.
Mahrez may leave the Premier League altogether. His talent is such that he could flourish across any European stage. If he stays in England, however, he will have his pick of the top sides to choose from.
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