Algeria's Riyad Mahrez thumbs nose at England's elite

AFP , Friday 12 Feb 2016

Riyad Mahrez
Leicester City's Algerian midfielder Riyad Mahrez reacts during the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Leicester City at Villa Park in Birmingham, central England on January 16, 2016 (AFP)

The baton passed from Eden Hazard to Riyad Mahrez in the second minute of Leicester City's 2-1 victory over Chelsea at the King Power Stadium in December.

As Hazard ambled over to close Mahrez down on the Leicester right, the Algerian nonchalantly popped the ball between his legs before advancing and taking a shot at goal, leaving the Chelsea number 10 in his wake.

Hazard was the Premier League's showboater-in-chief in 2014-15, but his crown has been stolen by Mahrez, whose 14 goals and 10 assists make him one of the favourites to succeed the Belgian as England's Player of the Year.

The two players were born a month apart in 1991 and both are quick, skilful forwards who learnt their trade in northern France -- Hazard at Lille, Mahrez at Le Havre.

But it is where their similarities end that the symbolism begins.

Hazard, a £32 million ($46.3 million, 41.3 million euros) signing from Lille in 2012, has become the sleep-walking incarnation of Chelsea's slump from champions to mid-ranking also-rans.

Leicester have taken their place at the summit and in the impish Mahrez, a £400,000 bargain buy from Le Havre, they possess a figure who embodies the Premier League's startling democratisation.

He tied Manchester City in knots last weekend, inspiring Leicester to a sensational 3-1 win, and on Sunday it is Arsenal's turn, as Claudio Ranieri's men look to defend their five-point lead at the top of the table.

Born in Sarcelles, an ethnically diverse northern suburb of Paris, to an Algerian father and Moroccan mother, Mahrez began his career with local club AAS Sarcelles and joined fourth-tier Quimper in 2009.

Frequently dismissed by coaches for being too scrawny, he cites the loss of his father when he was 15 as a moment that hardened his resolve to succeed.

"I don't know if I started to be more serious, but after the death of my dad things started to go for me," he told The Guardian in September. "Maybe in my head I wanted it more."

Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille, his boyhood team, watched him at Quimper, but he opted to remain in the northwest and join the acclaimed youth set-up at Le Havre, whose alumni include Juventus star Paul Pogba.

- 'Genius' -

Mahrez broke into the first team in 2012 and after tracking him for 18 months, Leicester made their move in January 2014.

"Everybody was saying to me: 'Riyad, England is not for you, it is too physical, too strong,'" he said.

"But when I got here I really liked it. When I started training and playing games I thought to myself: 'I was stupid to hesitate.'

"If I was still playing in the second division in France, nobody would have watched me."

Four months after arriving in England, he was celebrating the Championship title and by the August he was a Premier League footballer.

It took him a season to find his feet among England's elite, but since scoring twice in a 4-2 win over Sunderland on the opening day of the current campaign, the 24-year-old has been flying.

He signed a new four-year contract in August, became the first Algerian to score a Premier League hat-trick in December, with a treble at Swansea City, and was named Algerian Footballer of the Year last month.

His dizzying footwork has made him a social media phenomenon and with 22 Algeria caps, he is now an established international for the land of his father's birth.

His market value, meanwhile, has rocketed to levels approaching Hazard's.

"If Messi had done some of the things that Mahrez has pulled off, we'd be shouting genius," says Habib Beye, the former Newcastle United right-back turned French television pundit.

Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante have dealt out their fair share of bloody noses for Leicester this season, but it is Mahrez who Ranieri describes as the team's "reference point".

"When we need to create," the Italian explains, "we give the ball to him."

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