Elegant, merciless and getting better: Mahrez is an underrated genius
There was a funny, slightly gruesome moment with 72 minutes gone at the Etihad as the players of Paris Saint-Germain publicly fell apart, a team playing through a mist of frazzled entitlement, unable to process the looming spectre of their own defeat.
Marco Verratti, fresh from a sly dig at Phil Foden as he lay on the floor, set off after the ball, stubby legs pounding the turf, a man in search of a slice of flesh. Unfortunately for Verratti the ball was heading for Riyad Mahrez, the coolest man in Manchester.
This is a footballer who remains loose and elegantly unfazed even with his team 4-1 up on aggregate in a Champions League semi-final and teasing this superstar PSG construct into a state of angry submission.
At which point Mahrez did something beautiful and also very amusing, dragging the ball around the whirling Verratti, feinting, sloping off the other way, and forcing Verratti to clutch and grab and drag him down. Frankly Paris could have had three players sent off in this game – despite spending the early moments repeatedly hurling themselves to the hail-encrusted grass, like excited children overcome at their first ever sighting of snow.
The Manchester City defence will take the praise for this 2-0 home win. This was the rock that broke PSG. Kyle Walker was a barrelling, hustling presence, constantly surging back to jounce his man off the ball. If only mankind could find a way of harnessing the power of pure, uncut Kyle Walker, of storing the energy dispersed by those defensive barge-sprints.
Next to him Rúben Dias and John Stones were surgical, elegant, assured, and agreeably tactile in each other’s company, all hugs and chest slaps after another block, another successful lunge.
But this was also Mahrez’s game, and not just because of his two goals. He was decorative, as ever, a player so graceful you half expect to look down and notice he’s dribbling the ball in a wing collar and a silk cummerbund.
But he was also effective, disciplined and totally fearless.
Mahrez is from Paris too. He grew up in Sarcelles, a far northern suburb menaced by traffic and poverty. He still goes back there, gets his hair cut in the same place, sees his old friends. This is a player who was rejected early on in French football. These days he’s that rare thing, an oddly underrated ball-playing genius, who is now performing at a rare pitch.
His opening goal on 12 minutes was a great team moment, and a great coup for Pep Guardiola’s planning. PSG had swarmed forward early on, leaving huge spaces, into which Ederson played the most astonishing flat, curving, howling pass, launched with no real run up, to the feet of Oleksandr Zinchenko, haring over the halfway line.
Zinchenko passed to Kevin De Bruyne. His shot rebounded to Mahrez. The finish was also a lovely miniature, a tricky angle addressed with a clip off the instep low through the legs. This is a player so elegant even his blocked-shot-rebound follow-ups are zingy and moreish.
Mahrez has 15 goals now this season and four at the sharp end of the Champions League. He has always been a very funny footballer, a forward whose game is based on deception, on using his entire body to fool an opponent. There is a mass laboratory study to be made of the Mahrez feint, which is up there with the Vulcan death grip when it comes to instantly and mercilessly putting a fellow human on the ground.
His special power these days is that he is the same on any stage against any opponent, good enough to make a cat or a king look like a fool with the same waggle of the ankle. Plus he’s getting better. Mahrez is 30 now.
He does more things, keeps the ball, gives his team somewhere to rest, interlocks well with Walker.
Mahrez touched the ball 43 times in the first half, more than anyone bar Ilkay Gündogan. He made four tackles and interceptions. He registered at least once on every basic metric except for headers won. Be reasonable.
With 62 minutes gone he scored his second. The key pass this time was from De Bruyne, a drone pass, remotely guided into Phil Foden’s run. He crossed low and hard. Mahrez slipped the ball expertly past Keylor Navas. And so City march on to their first European final in just over 50 years.
Are you allowed to enjoy this stuff, if you feel uneasy about the idea of football as a tool in a cold gulf war? How about the sporting side of things, the romance of nation state PR payments? Does that take the gloss, the thrill? Does one rule out the other? It shouldn’t, because this is a seriously captivating team, and a wonderful sporting achievement whatever the resources poured in to make it work.
It is impossible not to marvel at the micro-planning, and also the intellectual consistency. For Guardiola it must feel like a kind of renaissance patronage, the artist coddled in his wealthy palazzo, told simply to explore his vision to its logical end.
Take a look, by contrast, at Paris Saint-Germain, who don’t stand for anything other than a love of victory and spectacle.
The Pep-City way says: possession, the collective, interchangeable high-spec human parts.
The PSG way says nothing. It says: Neymar is very good. This may well be the case. But this was City’s, and Mahrez’s night.