What Next for Mahrez after Successive Champions League Snubs?

Published August 19th, 2020 - 01:26 GMT
The Algeria wideman didn’t start in Manchester City’s ignominious European exit, leaving him yet again questioning Pep Guardiola’s faith (Photo: AFP)
The Algeria wideman didn’t start in Manchester City’s ignominious European exit, leaving him yet again questioning Pep Guardiola’s faith (Photo: AFP)

When Pep Guardiola woke on Sunday morning he surely would still be questioning just how Manchester City collapsed against Olympique Lyonnais in their Champions League quarter-final the evening before.

Frankly, the 3-1 defeat will sting for a while, but, even worse, for someone like the former Barcelona boss, was the abject showing for nearly two-thirds of the encounter. For all the talk of 'playing my way' and 'adhering to a certain style or philosophy’ to win football games, Guardiola did neither on Saturday, for an hour, at least.

The exalted Catalan bemused observers with the strange 3-5-2 formation at Estadio Jose Alvalade, a departure from his usual 4-3-3 or tweaked 4-2-3-1 he turns to from time to time.

A casualty of Pep’s bizarre tactic was Riyad Mahrez, left out from the off against the Ligue 1 side that had just eliminated a wobbling Juventus side on away goals. Having been an unused substitute vs Real Madrid days earlier, the Algeria winger’s snub vs Lyon was jarring.

In truth, leaving the African champion out against Los Blancos was predicted, given the ex-Leicester City man had underwhelmed in big FA Cup clashes while the City manager’s selection in their final two Premier League games foresaw his selection for Real, but omission against the seventh-best French side in 19/20 was near mortifying.

Along with Mahrez, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and David Silva were among the 12 substitutes on the night, as Guardiola surprised critics and maybe his players with his line-up.

After all, this was the same man that went with a bold approach against Zinedine Zidane’s side either side of the pandemic and consequently dominated the Spanish champions in both games. Seemingly overly worried by the French outfit in their quarter-final clash, he was unusually faint-hearted when it mattered most.

There's a suggestion that previous eliminations at this stage in recent seasons, coupled with disappointing results vs Lyon last term, led to Saturday's line-up. However, this iteration had a new manager in charge and lost a few of the key personnel from both meetings in 18/19.

If that XI vs Rudi Garcia’s team looked a caricature of a normal Pep line-up, the choice to wait almost an hour to correct what wasn’t working was even more criminal.

The former Bayern Munich trainer’s high standing in the game is due to the number of trophies won since 2009, the style of football employed and his ability to make the right decisions. Against Les Gones, the 49-year-old boss was indecisive and it cost his team dearly.

Of course, the Citizens created the better chances over 90 minutes (they edged xG 3.06-0.83) and could complain about poor refereeing for the second while the usually reliable Ederson bungled an easy catch for the Kids’ third, regardless, waiting so long to change a flawed strategy put too much pressure on the City players.

After the dispiriting first 45 minutes, the expectation was for Pep to tear down the imperfect approach but he waited another 16 minutes after the restart to introduce Mahrez, despite trailing since the 23rd minute. The 2016 African Footballer of the Year did little in the half-hour following his introduction, although he did create a shooting opportunity in those final 34 minutes.

It felt like City wasted an hour of that game utilizing an alien style and gave themselves a mountain to climb after reverting to playing on the front foot for the final third of the quarter-final.

While many at the club mull over their last eight elimination, for the fourth successive time under Guardiola, doubts may yet again spring up in Mahrez’s mind over the level of trust Pep has in him.

There was talk of the Spaniard not truly having confidence in the North African in his maiden year at the Etihad Stadium, but a strong finish to 18/19 and an excellent start in 19/20 saw the African champion become one of the Citizens’ key players.

This made observers predict an important role for the two-time Premier League champion in Man City’s European joust, but it ultimately wasn’t to be as he lost his place in the side at the first sign of a dip in form in the very tight games.

Indeed, the lack of confidence in the African winger and a couple of other attacking talent against Lyon was remarkable. It passed the wrong message to observers and apparently to the players as well, who seemed to play with fear vs a side they were tipped to dominate.

Despite a potentially daunting meeting with favorites Bayern Munich in the semi-final, the recalibration of the Champions League this year meant this represented Pep’s best chance to end his nine-year continental drought and bring home Europe’s most sought-after trophy to the blue half of Manchester.

Mahrez and co. will undoubtedly go again next season. Nevertheless, Saturday's exit felt like a huge opportunity missed to win their first European crown in this revamped format. The disappointment should rankle. It will rankle.

By Seye Omidiora

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