The upcoming Africa Cup of Nations will see a Premier League title challenger lose its leading marksman at a critical point of the season.
A gifted right winger who has been involved in more goals — either scoring or assisting — than any of his teammates.
But while it’s Liverpool that is drawing most attention for AFCON absentees, with Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita imminently set to depart for Cameroon, the Reds are not the only top team set to be affected by call-ups.
Manchester City could also lose Riyad Mahrez for up to a month as Algeria aims to defend the trophy it won two years ago in Egypt.
The 30-year-old attacker is expected to start City’s first game of the New Year against Arsenal on Saturday before he heads off.
Because of the typically busy festive schedule, Mahrez and Raheem Sterling were rested for the midweek victory over Brentford so that they would be ready for a clash against one of the Premier League’s in-form sides, with Pep Guardiola intent on extending City’s eight-point lead at the top of the table ahead of Sunday’s meeting between second and third, Chelsea and Liverpool, at Stamford Bridge 24 hours later.
Mahrez’s impact at City can sometimes go under the radar in a squad full of stars but he has stealthily made a big contribution in the first half of the season.
Missing a deadly striker, Guardiola has needed his players to share the goals around and the Algerian has responded.
He is the club’s top scorer this season, with 12 goals — three more than closest rival Sterling.
Add in five assists, only bettered by Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo, and he has become City’s most menacing offensive threat.
In his last three appearances alone, against Leeds, Newcastle and Leicester, he has both scored and contributed an assist.
But it’s not just in raw statistics that Mahrez’s impact can be felt. With the role he plays, he has been integral to the 10-game winning run that has seen City pull away from its title rivals during the festive period.
Shorn of a prolific No. 9, Guardiola has had to tweak his attacking style even further this season, particularly when faced with deep-lying opponents at the Etihad Stadium
Wingers have been asked to play high and wide to try to stretch opponents and open up space in central areas.
But they have also been sharper than ever, moving the ball quickly to stop sides from doubling up in an attempt to strangle their threat.
Aymeric Laporte’s driven pass from left center back to Mahrez high on the right flank has been a go-to plan for opening up attacking lanes and, with one of the best first touches around, Mahrez can quickly set City onto the front foot.
It’s in Europe where he has become most influential and Guardiola will be thankful that he is back in time for the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie with Portuguese side Sporting CP in February.
Mahrez scored in five of City’s six group games in a year that also saw him net home and away to Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s semifinals, and at Borussia Dortmund in the previous round.
So, his absence will still leave a massive hole in the squad, particularly with Ferran Torres having already left, with the versatile Spain forward joining Barcelona as part of a €55 million (£46 million/$62 million) transfer.
Guardiola does have options, though. Gabriel Jesus now prefers playing as a winger than as a central striker, Sterling is capable of switching flanks, while Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne could provide a temporary fix.
However, we could also see rising star Cole Palmer get some more game time.
The highly rated 19-year-old has been impressing Guardiola and his coaches around the training ground, and the feeling is that Palmer has the quality and intelligence to eventually become a first-team regular.
So far, Palmer has been following the Phil Foden path to the top — working behind closed doors on improving his game and being given the occasional run-out as a substitute, with the odd start thrown in to help his progression.
Of course, on account of its first Carabao Cup exit in five years, City has a relatively quiet January as it does not have rearranged matches to worry about either, after escaping the glut of postponements caused by the COVID-19 spike that has rocked the Premier League.
Still, Mahrez will miss the crucial league clash with title rival Chelsea, as well as the tricky trip to Southampton.
The Algerian’s City teammates will be thrilled if he returns with another winner’s medal from the AFCON, but they’ll also be looking forward to him returning as soon as possible, underlining just how important a player Mahrez has become at the Etihad.
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