When the story of this English Premier League season is written, one of the players who will feature very prominently is an unlikely one: Leicester City's man of the moment, Riyad Mahrez. FIFA.com caught up with the Algerian international, who is playing the season of his life and naturally drawing attention from Europe's biggest clubs.
After 29 matches last season, Leicester were stone-last, seven points off safety, and Mahrez's statistics were uninspiring with two goals and three assists in 20 matches. Fast forward a year and it is clear why the high-energy winger and his club have stunned the league. A win at the weekend over Watford, with the only goal of the match coming from Mahrez's wicked, left-footed blast, sees them on 60 points, five clear of their nearest rival at the top of the table. The 25-year-old has played in all but two of Leicester's league matches, with 15 goals and 11 assists. Only four Premier League players have scored more goals than Mahrez and the only player who has more assists this season is Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil.
While few could have anticipated such a historic season for the Foxes or Mahrez, the relentless attacker told FIFA.com that he is not surprised. “Deep down inside me, I knew I could do great," Mahrez explained. "I already did well last year, but I was not a player who shone under pressure.
"I did not score enough or give enough assists. I have improved on that point and am more efficient now. It is due to my work but also to the team's overall improvement. I feel great in this team, and I feel my team-mates trust me more."
Rising to the top
Born in Sarcelles outside of Paris to a Moroccan mother and an Algerian father, Mahrez demonstrated great football skill at a young age despite his small stature. He joined a lower-league club called Quimper, where he continued to get rave reviews, eventually joining second division team Le Havre even though Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain were also said to be interested. After spending his formative years in the reserve side, he was later promoted to the senior team and spent several seasons playing in France's Ligue 2.
In January 2014, English Championship side Leicester City signed him in an attempted push for the top flight, and by the end of the year he was a regular, starting six matches in a row as the Foxes won the Championship to gain promotion to the Premier League for the first time in ten years. His move to England coincided with a declared interest to play internationally for the country of his father, and he was named in Algeria’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ squad, playing in their 2-1 defeat against Belgium.
Mahrez played his first Premier League match in Leicester City’s season-opener last term, and he scored his first Premier League goal at the beginning of October. He was a frequent starter as the newly promoted side struggled to just four wins in their opening 29 contests. However, Mahrez and his team-mates then pulled off a Houdini-like escape, winning seven of their last nine matches to finish the season in an incredible 14th place.
A season to remember
That momentum continued into this season as the club announced that well-travelled Italian coach Claudio Ranieri, whose previous positions read like a who’s who of European club football and included Fiorentina, Inter Milan, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, as well as a short stint in charge of the Greek national team, would take over. Surprisingly, the former defender changed Leicester’s style of play to a more direct attacking one, allowing Mahrez and striker Jamie Vardy the freedom to use their pace going forward. The dynamic duo have repaid him throughout the season with a remarkable 34 goals and 15 assists between them.
Mahrez is quick to praise the coach, with whom he at times speaks French, saying that the veteran has helped him find his true potential. "I feel a great confidence in my skills from my coach," Mahrez said. "I like making a difference and taking risks, and I don't feel constrained by him in that.”
One drawback Mahrez and his team-mates face is that their opponents are taking them much more seriously than they would have last season, which is natural given that they appear poised to win their first-ever top-division title.
"The other teams have changed their approach to us and to my way of playing to try to counter it," Mahrez said. "For instance, the left-back often remains longer on the wing instead of going to the heart of the defence. Or sometimes, I have to deal with two players instead of just one. I have to be intelligent to adapt this new situation."
That notwithstanding, and not surprisingly, Mahrez says he is simply living the dream at the moment and not for a second has he regretted making the move from France to England. "We are ten worlds away from France," said Mahrez. 'It is impressive. To sum it up, I would say that the Premier League is football's NBA. Playing in the Premier League, in front of such crowds and on such perfect pitches, is amazing. I am so lucky."