Man City’s court triumph set to intensify race for top 4 places in Premier League

Manchester City’s success in overturning its Champions League ban on Monday has huge ramifications on the Premier League. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 14 July 2020

Man City’s court triumph set to intensify race for top 4 places in Premier League

  • The fight for a top-five finish has reverted back to needing to be in the top four to join champion Liverpool and City, already secured in second place

LONDON: Manchester City’s success in overturning its Champions League ban on Monday has huge ramifications on the Premier League and the remaining two teams that will qualify for Europe’s top club competition.

Chelsea, Manchester United and Leicester — and maybe Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United, too — are now fighting for two qualifying spots instead of three with two weeks of the season remaining.

The fight for a top-five finish has reverted back to needing to be in the top four to join champion Liverpool and City, already secured in second place, in earning tens of millions of dollars in UEFA prize money next season.

The most concerned team is likely to be Leicester.

In the top four since September — and, in December, even looking like the most realistic title challenger to Liverpool — Leicester have imploded, collecting only two wins from their last 11 league games stretching back to the end of January.

After losing to relegation-threatened Bournemouth 4-1 on Sunday, Leicester will find themselves  in fifth place if Man United beat  Southampton on Monday.

United appears much more likely to secure a top-four finish and return to the Champions League after a season’s absence.

With four straight wins ahead of the Southampton game, United are the form team in the league and also has the most benign remaining schedule with upcoming matches against Crystal Palace and West Ham before what could be a winner-takes-all game game at Leicester on the final weekend of the season.

Making it all the more intriguing is the fact that another final-day match is between Chelsea and Wolves.

Chelsea is currently in third place, one point ahead of Leicester, but will drop into fourth if United beat  Southampton.

A victory over already-relegated Norwich on Tuesday appears pivotal for Chelsea, considering its last two games are at Liverpool — a team chasing records to cap its title-winning season — and then Wolves, who have gained a reputation for beating the top teams over the last two years.

Wolves are in sixth place, four points off the top four, so the ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport has come as a blow to their Champions League ambitions.

Indeed, Wolves’ best chance of qualifying for the competition is now to win the Europa League, which earns entry to the Champions League. The team coached by Nuno Espirito Santo has reached the last 16 of the Europa League and will play the second leg of its match against Olympiakos next month, with the score at 1-1 after the first leg.

Likewise, seventh-place Sheffield United needed City to lose its appeal at sport’s highest court to stand a realistic chance of a finish in the Champions League positions, a prospect that would have seemed fanciful for a team that was widely tipped for relegation at the start of the season.

Europa League qualification will be Sheffield United’s target now, with seventh place possibly earning that reward if Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea win the FA Cup.


Why Riyad Mahrez should shed reluctant hero tag and join Arab greats

Updated 54 min 25 sec ago

Why Riyad Mahrez should shed reluctant hero tag and join Arab greats

  • The Algerian winger could be a few weeks away from his crowning glory
  • Beyond his goals, assists and medals, he is one of the most aesthetically pleasing players to watch in the Premier League

DUBAI: We should talk about Riyad Mahrez. Because, it seems, Riyad Mahrez doesn’t really like to talk about Riyad Mahrez.

Manchester City’s Algerian international is famously reticent when it comes to dealing with the media. For one of modern football’s most unique and successful talents, Mahrez remains an enigma; brilliant, instantly recognizable, and yet so often underrated.

Most fans would struggle to recall what his voice even sounds like. Though he has 5.5million followers on Instagram, and a further 2.2 million on Twitter, he mostly shuns the behind the scenes glamorous posts that so many footballers seem to enjoy in favor of match action shots. And there is no team of PR warriors shouting his achievements from the rooftops.

Which is a shame. One of the greatest Arab footballers of all time certainly deserves more. Except that, when the discussion of the greatest Arab or African footballers to play in Europe comes up, Mahrez rarely comes near the top.

A strong showing in the mini-champions League tournament over the next few weeks, starting with Friday’s round of 16 second leg against Real Madrid, could throw some gold dust on an already outstanding career.

Since his quiet introduction to the Premier League in 2014, Mahrez has been nothing short of a revelation; an enchanting, balletic footballer, whether gliding across the right wing to set up yet another chance for Jamie Vardy or Sergio Aguero, or cutting inside onto his magical left foot to score another stunning curling effort. Or, as he has done twice, winning the Premier League.

Beyond his goals, assists and medals, he is one of the most aesthetically pleasing players to watch in the Premier League, even the world.

So why does he struggle to gain the acclaim of other Arab and African footballers of past and present?

Like Karim Benzema in Spain, Mahrez is the right player, at the right place, at the right time. But not always, metaphorically speaking, the loudest of players.

By most metrics, Mohamed Salah takes some beating as the outstanding Arab footballer of modern times, perhaps ever. Since joining Liverpool in the summer of 2017, he has played a pivotal part in transforming the club from a fourth-placed team to proven winners, both in the Premier League and Champions League; twice won the Premier League Golden Boot, and also claimed the PFA Player of the Year in 2017-18.

Like Salah, Mahrez has won the Premier League in England, arguably the most high profile league in the world. In fact, he is one of only 11 players to have won it twice, first as the driving force behind Leicester City’s still scarcely believable 2015-16 title win (which also earned him the PFA Player of the Year award), and then as part of Pep Guardiola’s staggering collective at Manchester City in 2018-19. 

Unlike Salah, though, he has yet to win the Champions League. That could be about to change in a few weeks. Manchester City remain the favorites to win the delayed competition, now scheduled to conclude in Lisbon between 7th and 23rd of August.

Salah’s army of fans, from Liverpool to Cairo, rightly hail his every move.

But for Mahrez, there are no murals on neighborhood walls in New York or the Northwest of England. No string of television commercials. And no fashion magazine covers.

It is not for lack of achievement or talent either. You get the impression Mahrez just prefers it that way.

The 29-year-old, at first instance, might also suffer in comparison to one of Algeria’s greatest footballers.

Rabah Madjer achieved instant international fame when he scored in his nation’s finest hour-and-a-half, the 2-1 win against mighty West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Five years, and many domestic titles later, he would return to haunt the Germans, scoring a remarkable back-heeled goal in Porto’s 1987 European Cup final win over Bayern Munich. Later that year he put on a man-of-the-match performance, and scored the winner, as Porto beat Penarol to claim the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo.

Such iconic moments are hard to compete with. Yet Mahrez has many of his own.

In February 2016, Mahrez produced one of the Premier League’s most memorable individual performances of the last decade as Leicester defeated his future club Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad stadium on the way to that stunning league title win. Even that early in the season, the Player of the Year award was in the bag.

And Premier League-centric viewers, at least those who don’t follow Manchester City, may have missed a truly outrageous stoppage time free-kick in a 2-1 win over Nigeria which secured Algeria’s place in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Cup. Where the home crowds had eagerly anticipated a Salah and Egypt triumph, it was Mahrez and Algeria that were crowned African champions after beating Senegal 1-0 in the final at Cairo International Stadium.

Again, and inexplicably, the achievement did not garner the global acclaim it deserved.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Mahrez’s understated reputation is the company he keeps. When you play in forward line alongside Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Jesus Gabriel, David Silva and, above all, the peerless Kevin De Bruyne, the credit will inevitably be spread around.

Mahrez, a maverick at Leicester, has been transformed by Pep Guardiola into the perfect team player at Manchester City. An excellent return of 11 goals and 12 assists in the Premier League this season may not quite see him at the top of either chart. But, in addition to one goal and four assists in the Champions League, his numbers accurately illustrate a consistent, at times spectacular, overall contribution in a season where he has been one of the club’s most impressive forwards.

If all that still doesn’t make him one of the greatest Arab footballers of all time, perhaps a Champions League medal on August 23 finally will.