Riyad Mahrez wants to put the “worst” moment of his football career behind him to help Manchester City to a double triumph.
The Algeria captain was left shattered when his country failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, having also missed out in 2018 too.
A 2-1 home loss in a play-off second leg to Cameroon — who scored with the last kick of the match in extra time — saw the Desert Warriors eliminated on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate.
Mahrez had hoped to shine when the Middle East hosts its first finals of the biggest competition in world football during November and December.
Having also finished bottom of their Africa Cup of Nations group, despite being defending champions, it capped a painful period for the forward.
But the 31-year-old is now determined to finish the season on a high and lead City’s bid for Premier League and Champions League success.
The Abu Dhabi-owned club are a point clear of Liverpool in a tense top-flight title race with four games left — and visit Real Madrid on Wednesday in their Champions League semifinal return after a thrilling 4-3 first-leg success.
Mahrez, who started when City lost 1-0 to Chelsea in last season’s European final, told Arab News: “You always have pressure, but you have to play.
“You have to play your best because you have a lot of people behind you, the fans, your country.
“I’m obviously very disappointed to not go to the World Cup with my country, which was the worst I have felt in my career.
“It was so bad — the scenario was very painful. But at the end I have to try to forget and go forward — and try to help my club to achieve things.
“Obviously the Champions League is a very big competition. We try to do our best and arrive in the semifinal, the last part of the competition and we have to be focused. We are going to give everything (to go through).”
Mahrez and City were left frustrated in the first leg at the Etihad as they did not take chances to record a greater margin of victory over the 13-time European champions.
Having set up Kevin De Bruyne’s opener with a sensational bit of skill, the winger sent a good opportunity wide and then hit the post with another effort.
Mahrez, though, has been inspirational in City’s run to the last four this season, scoring six goals in his 11 starts.
He is also the club’s overall top scorer with a career-high 23 goals and has nine assists.
It shows how Mahrez is now producing his best form at City following a £60 million move from Leicester City in 2018 — two years after he won the Premier League with the Foxes and was named PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
“In terms of numbers, yes this is my best season,” he added. “A lot better, but I know I could have still done better too.
“But it’s good to help the team to try to win and that’s what I am trying to do every time I play.
“I feel good. After four years here now I have more experience, I know more about my body, I know everything, my team-mates and the manager, so it’s easier for me.”
City boss Pep Guardiola rested Mahrez, along with De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, for his side’s 4-0 win at Leeds on Saturday, but is expected to start the trio in Madrid.
Guardiola has praised the contribution of Mahrez this season and revealed how his dazzling displays are a factor in why record £100 million summer signing Jack Grealish has not been a regular starter.
“Riyad, for a long time, is always with us and, in important games, he gives us something unique,” he said recently.
City will certainly need that class and cunning against Carlo Ancelotti’s newly crowned Spanish league champions.
Mahrez is also well aware of Real’s threat in the shape of 34-year-old Ballon d’Or favorite Karim Benzema, whose two first-leg goals have also given Real hope of reaching a 17th final.
Ironically, the pair could have been international team-mates, but Benzema chose to represent France where he was born, rather than Algeria where he has family roots.
“Benzema is a top top striker, at his age as well,” Mahrez said. “He’s a hardworking guy and deserves everything.”