Riyad Mahrez stand-off gives Leicester boss Claude Puel headache

Riyad Mahrez has missed Leicester's last two matches after a move to Manchester City collapsed. (Reuters)
Updated 04 February 2018

Riyad Mahrez stand-off gives Leicester boss Claude Puel headache

LONDON: Riyad Mahrez’s career is at a crossroads. With his dream move to Manchester City potentially in ruins, Leicester City boss Claude Puel faces a major challenge to get his star player back and performing.
The Algerian winger was missing for the 1-1 draw against Swansea City at the King Power Stadium on Saturday, having not trained since the Premier League leaders walked away from the negotiating table due to Leicester’s astronomical demands.
Despite a second transfer request from the player in eight months, Leicester reportedly held out for a deal worth £80 million ($113 million, 91 million euros), with even City’s cash-rich Abu Dhabi owners unwilling to go beyond £60 million.
Mahrez, 26, is unhappy that Leicester were determined to secure such a huge profit on a player they bought for a reported £350,000 from French second-division side Le Havre in 2014 and who played a pivotal role in the club’s rise from the Championship to Premier League champions.
He was crowned players’ player of the year during Leicester’s remarkable title-winning campaign in 2015-16, scoring 17 Premier League goals, and then signed a four-year deal to help lead their Champions League charge.
Mahrez netted four times in the Champions League as Leicester again surpassed expectations as England’s last side standing before narrowly losing out 2-1 on aggregate to Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals, proving he was no one-season wonder.
Adding to Mahrez’s ire is that other heroes of Leicester’s title-winning triumph — N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater — have been allowed to leave for Chelsea with far less resistance.
And with City seemingly encouraged to make a move by injuries to Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus, there is no guarantee the runaway Premier League leaders will come calling again in the summer.
“I am fiercely ambitious and feel that now is the time to move on to a new experience,” Mahrez said at the end of last season as he tried to force his way out.
Instead, he has again led a Leicester revival this season under Puel following Craig Shakespeare’s sacking in October, scoring nine times in his past 20 outings.
Puel remains optimistic, saying Mahrez will return to the fold.
“He is our friend and I think all the staff and all the players will help him to come back with a good mentality and a positive attitude and to enjoy his football with his teammates,” he said.
“Riyad is a good player but he is a good man also. I respect him. It’s important to manage this with calm inside the club.”
Should Mahrez back down, his next appearance could come at the Etihad Stadium against City when Leicester travel to Manchester next Saturday.
A Mahrez performance reminiscent of the one he delivered when Leicester ran riot in a 3-1 win two years ago, propelling them toward the title, could go a long way toward convincing City he remains the man they want for next season.
“Everybody knows we were trying but we cannot afford, in this moment, this amount of what they are asking,” said City boss Pep Guardiola after Wednesday’s 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
“We are going to see what happens in the summer.”
Guardiola named only six substitutes for Saturday’s clash at Burnley due to City’s mounting injury crisis, in a move some interpreted as a hint of his unhappiness about the club’s unwillingness to sign Mahrez.
Come the end of the season, Leicester’s hand may also finally be forced by the fact Mahrez will have two years left on his contract, the point at which many clubs choose to cash in before the value of their prized assets might depreciate.
Time will tell whether he gets another chance.


Al-Hilal overcome Al-Nassr in Riyadh Derby to go clear at the top of Saudi Professional League

Updated 57 min 43 sec ago

Al-Hilal overcome Al-Nassr in Riyadh Derby to go clear at the top of Saudi Professional League

  • The two fierce rivals will meet for a rematch this weekend in the delayed final of the 2019-20 King’s Cup

The first Riyadh derby of the 2020-21 Saudi Professional League season went the way of the reigning champions, as Al-Hilal overcame last season’s runners-up, Al-Nassr, 2-0 at King Saud University Stadium.

The result highlighted the contrasting starts by the two clubs to the new campaign. Al-Hilal started the match joint top of the table with Al-Shabab, on 10 points. Al-Nassr, on the other hand, have endured a nightmare start to the season. After three losses and only one win, they started the day in lowly 13th position on only three points.

The match was given some added spice by the fact that the fierce rivals will meet again on Saturday in the delayed final of the 2019-20 King’s Cup.

Despite their plight, Al-Nassr started the brighter of the teams, with the home side strangely wasteful in possession. However, the first real chance of the half fell to Al-Hilal on 15 minutes. Bafetimbi Gomis exchanged passes with Sebastian Giovinco, only to side-foot the ball wide from an inviting position.

Al-Nassr hit back on 28 minutes when the excellent Sultan Al-Ghanam’s stinging shot was saved by Habib Al-Wotayan, as the visitors continued to frequently threaten the champions. Neither club showed anywhere near enough of a cutting edge to break the first-half deadlock, however.

At half-time, Abderrazak Hamdallah — the league’s top scorer for the past two seasons, and with four goals in Riyadh derbies to his name — replaced Khalid Al-Ghannam in an attempt to bolster Al-Nassr’s attack.

It was the home team that got the first big break of the second period, however, when a penalty was awarded on 56 minutes for a foul on Al-Hilal’s Argentinian forward, Luciano Vietto.

Gomis stepped up to calmly, in his inimitable style, to put the spot kick past Brad Jones and give Razvan Lucescu’s team a lead they would not relinquish.

Just after the hour, Al-Nassr coach Rui Vitoria responded by throwing on Moroccan star Nordin Amrabat for Abdullah Al-Khaibari and Ali Al-Hassan for Abdulmajeed Al-Sulayhem.

The double substitution looked to have paid dividends within a few minutes as Pity Martinez’s hanging cross was tapped on by Ayman Yahya for Amrabat to finish from close range. But after the video assistant referee was consulted, the goal was disallowed for an earlier offside.

With 10 minutes left, Al-Hilal brought on Syrian international Omar Kharbin in the hope of settling the match, while Al-Nassr went for broke at the other end.

With eight minutes of stoppage time added, the match remained on knife edge until, with seconds left, Gomis put Saleh Al-Shehri through on goal and the Saudi international finished with style to put the result beyond doubt.

Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi was glad to get a tough match out of the way before the two teams meet again in the cup final next weekend.

“The match was not easy and we dedicate it to our coach, who set up the team for this win,” he said. “We are 10 points clear and we can put aside the league for a while now as we concentrate on the King’s Cup final. Of course, the win gives us a big push in the final.”

He dedicated the clean sheet to absent goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, and added: “The coach had told us not to force things, that the goal could come at any time. That’s exactly what happened. We were not in a hurry and, more importantly, we didn’t concede either.”

The man who replaced Al-Mayouf in goal, Al-Motayan, was pleased to keep a clean sheet in his first derby, and thanked his teammates for their solid defensive performance.

“I found out I was playing one day before the match but we prepared for Al-Nassr like every other opponent — the most important thing was getting the three points,” he said. “My colleagues helped men a lot during the match and I can say I had complete support from the players, coaches and board.”

Vitoria was happy with his team’s performance but not with the manner of the defeat, revealing that Hamdallah and Amrabat were not fit to play the whole match after the international break.

“We can’t have players play if they are not completely ready to play the whole 90 — maybe 45 is ok. This is football,” he said.

“In the first half we played a good game, tactically. My team did not allow any chances for the opposition. We had seven shots, they had two. In the second half we were better — and, in fact, in the whole match we were better. But some of the details, like the penalty, made the difference.

“They had more possession in the first half but we allowed that. No, I’m not satisfied because we did not win. We fought and played well. The result is one thing and the performance is another.”

Vitoria disputed whether his side’s disallowed goal was truly offside, and revealed he had words with the referee after the final whistle, in a very calm and respectful manner.

“We have a final in five days and we will be back,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Al-Raed beat Abha Club 2-1, thanks to goals from Ahmed Zain and Mohammed Fouzair. Al-Ain won 2-0 away to Damac, with Faisel Al-Jamaan and Saphir Taider doing the damage either side of half time.

The other three matches of match day five ended in ties. Al-Qadisiyah and Al-Batin shared four goals, Al-Faisaly and Al-Ittihad drew 1-1, and Al-Shabab’s 2-2 draw at Al-Ahli kept them in second place in the league.