As Manchester City lined up a freekick 20 yards out from the Paris Saint-Germain goal, nobody expected Riyad Mahrez to take it - not least BT Sport co-commentator Jermaine Jenas who claimed there was “no way” the Algerian would be the one to strike it.
The set piece was set up for a right-footer, but the element of surprise was key as Mahrez, a left-footer, somehow found the back of Keylor Navas' net, squeezing his shot through the PSG wall. It was reflective of how Mahrez isn’t always seen as the most obvious of threats, but continues to deliver.
If City are to get the job done in next week’s Champions League semi final second leg and xreach the competition’s final for the first time in their history, the second half at the Parc des Princes will likely go down as the period that won it for them. After an opening 45 minutes that saw PSG take the lead, Mahrez was key to the turnaround.
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Pep Guardiola clearly instructed his players at half time to step higher up the pitch. Until then, PSG had been afforded too much time and space to pick passes for Kylian Mbappe and Neymar to race in behind. The second half, however, saw their supply lines cut and nobody did more to lead the press than Mahrez.
For a man Guardiola once described as having “no muscles” Mahrez demonstrated incredible energy. His second half display was reminiscent of the sort of relentless performances he produced for Leicester City in their title-winning 2015/16 season. On both sides of the ball, the 30-year-old was irrepressible.
Only Phil Foden matched Mahrez for the number of shots he fired off (three), also making more touches (74) than any other City attacker. For a player wired to take risks in the final third, his pass success rate of 96% was somewhat remarkable, especially because it never felt as if he played it safe.
This performance was no isolated case, either. While Ruben Dias, Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan will likely collect the individual honours when awards season rolls around, Mahrez has been key to the way Manchester City have played in 2021. Without him and the threat he provides from out wide, Guardiola’s system wouldn’t work.
At Bayern Munich, Arjen Robben played the Mahrez position for Guardiola, making an artform out of cutting inside off the right to lash one home with his left foot. There are differences between the pair, not least in Robben’s lightning pace, but that both have thrived under Guardiola highlights just how important their role is to the whole team structure.
“He is a guy who dances on the pitch,” Guardiola explained after a particular sparkling performance from Mahrez earlier in the season. “He doesn’t lose balls on the pitch. He makes the extra pass. He attracts opponents on the pitch and after he makes a pass in behind. He makes fantastic crosses.”
The Champions League has brought the best out of Mahrez as a City player, with the winner against PSG the 20th goal (eight goals and 12 assists) in the competition he has been involved in having made 26 starts. The Algerian has two goals and two assists in his last four Champions League appearances, underlining his status as a big game player.
There could be two more big games to come for Mahrez and Manchester City this season, with Guardiola on the brink of achieving his ultimate objective at the club - Champions League glory. For all the effortless elegance of de Bruyne, the prodigious guile of Phil Foden and the natural leadership of Dias, it could be the muscle-less directness of Mahrez that proves the biggest difference, as it did here.
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