The 24-year-old winger spoke to Goal about his rise from the French lower leagues to topping the Premier League with the Foxes – and those links with the Blaugrana
It was the goal that sealed the contest and crystallised Leicester City’s Premier League title hopes. Darting inside from the left channel, tormenting the flailing Martin Demichelis and leaving Joe Hart helpless to stop the ball from finding the back of the net.
Riyad Mahrez cemented Leicester’s position at the top of the table and gave the clearest indication yet that the unexpected league leaders are genuine challengers, or even favourites.
Mahrez’s strike, the second goal in Leicester’s 3-1 win over Manchester City, was a watershed moment as the Foxes defeated wealthier, far more established opposition in their own stadium.
The goal also confirmed the 24-year-old’s rise from amateur football in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles to a dominant force in Europe’s glamour league, with his performances reportedly attracting interest from Champions League holders Barcelona.
Mahrez has been propelled to the top of the English game and it is now possible for the winger to see himself playing in a Barcelona shirt alongside Lionel Messi, one of the players he most enjoys watching.
“It’s not my goal or my dream but obviously everyone wants to play with Messi. One day, maybe. Why not?” the 24-year-old told Goal, speaking at the launch of the FIFA 16 Ultimate Team Winter Upgrades.
“I didn’t have a hero but there were some players I liked watching,” Mahrez said of his time growing up and coming through the ranks. “Players like Zinedine Zidane, Didier Drogba, Messi, the Brazilian Ronaldo.”
The Algeria international’s progress, along with that of team-mate Jamie Vardy, has mirrored that of Leicester’s as a whole, beginning the 2008-9 season in English football’s third tier and now, under the stewardship of Claudio Ranieri, leading the Premier League with just 13 games remaining.
Ranieri’s return to football’s top table marks a renaissance of sorts for the Italian, after he was sacked as coach of the Greece national team following an embarrassing defeat to the Faroe Islands. The 24-year-old winger indicated that his favourite thing about the Italian is that he is “himself, he’s positive,” though he refused be drawn on a comparison between the man who kickstarted his career in English football and Nigel Pearson, the man who signed him.
Mahrez’s career began its relentless rise in 2009, just as Leicester escaped League One and returned to the Championship. Moving to Quimper, in the French fourth tier, the 24-year-old joined Le Havre in 2010 and then Leicester in 2014, winning promotion to the Premier League in his first season with the Foxes.
But English football and the Premier League were not the Algeria winger’s initial aims. Competing against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille and Monaco was a more attractive prospect than doing battle with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.
“No [when I was at Le Havre] I didn’t want to play in the Premier League, I wanted to play in the French Ligue 1,” Mahrez said.
“When I came here I always thought I would play in the Premier League, but before, no.”
Now safely established in England and the Premier League, Mahrez’s time at the King Power Stadium has coincided with a call up to the Algerian World Cup squad in 2014 and the 2015 Algerian Footballer of the Year award.
After reaching important milestones in the previous two years, 2016 could mark Mahrez’s first major club honours, with Leicester’s resolute attempt to remain at the top the Premier League table looking increasingly likely to come off.
But the 24-year-old does not want to be drawn on talk of the Premier League title, insisting that the players remain focused on enjoying each and every game.
Asked whether the Foxes can win the league title, Mahrez said: “I don’t know, we’ll see.
“We wanted 40 points [at the start of the season] but now we want to enjoy what we are doing.
“We’re not thinking about anything else.”
Whether that is still the case should Leicester emerge victorious from Sunday’s summit meeting with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium remains to be seen.