‘Street foot­baller’ proves class

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

LON­DON — He had ac­tu­ally been play­ing fairly poorly of late.

Op­po­nents had been dou­bling up, show­ing him into traf­fic, sti­fling Le­ices­ter City’s sen­sa­tional find. For a time there, it looked like Riyad Mahrez had been sussed out.

On this ev­i­dence, though, that was just wish­ful think­ing. Crowned Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ As­so­ci­a­tion Player of the Year in Lon­don on Sun­day night, Mahrez had been back with a bang against Swansea City early in the day, re­mind­ing us of the skills that make him so spe­cial.

There is ev­ery chance now that he will be re­garded in fu­ture years as a key part in one of the great­est sporting stories ever told.

Sup­port­ers will rem­i­nisce about the way the Al­ge­ria in­ter­na­tional used to run with the ball, his in­cred­i­bly wiry frame some­how with­stand­ing the bumps and barges of this phys­i­cal league.

Back in France, few of his friends and ad­vis­ers ever thought this pos­si­ble. They warned him not to come, not to take on the chal­lenge, think­ing his skinny build would get ruth­lessly flat­tened.

But that is the beauty of foot­ball. If you are blessed with huge tal­ent, as Mahrez un­doubt­edly is, his­tory tells us that you don’t have to be par­tic­u­larly strong as long as de­ter­mi­na­tion comes in­cluded in the pack­age. Out­right abil­ity will find a way.

The 25-year-old cer­tainly found a way here af­ter Swansea’s cap­tain, Ash­ley Wil­liams, pre­sented him with the ball early on in this match. With still plenty to do, Mahrez ducked in­side on to his favoured left foot be­fore giv­ing ‘the eyes’ to Lukas Fabi­an­ski in goal by shap­ing to shoot left be­fore slot­ting the ball neatly in­side the near post.

It was a fin­ish of ab­so­lute class, not to say fan­tas­tic com­po­sure given the high stakes at this pre­car­i­ous stage of the sea­son. It was also the goal that made Le­ices­ter’s af­ter­noon so much more com­fort­able. From that point on, the re­sult never looked in doubt as Mahrez set about dis­play­ing his con­sid­er­able charms.

His con­fi­dence clearly boosted, the shim­mies and touches started com­ing off, as did the passes, some out- stand­ingly cute. Mahrez be­came piv­otal to a joy­ous ex­hi­bi­tion on a day when over­bear­ing ten­sion could eas­ily have taken cen­tre stage.

In his favour here, Mahrez is es­sen­tially a street foot­baller, some­one who grew up in a north­ern sub­urb of Paris out­side the con­fines of a struc­tured acad­emy. He and his mates would break into a lo­cal sports hall at one in the morn­ing to kick about a ball for hours on end.

It was that kind of pure prac­tice that honed his skills, rather than pro­fes­sional at­ten­tion in­volv­ing weights in the gym. That makes him dif­fer­ent in this day and age. And don’t the fans just love it, as demon­strated by the car-park clam­our to get a glimpse af­ter­wards.

Be­fore this match, Clau­dio Ranieri was em­phatic. In Jamie Vardy’s ab­sence, the Ital­ian had po­et­i­cally said: “We need Mahrez to be the light”.

In the event, the King Power Sta­dium did not go short of blaz­ing bea­cons. But as his fel­low pro­fes­sion­als ac­knowl­edged with Sun­day night’s award, Mahrez has burned brighter than most over the course of this un­for­get­table cam­paign.

Mean­while, Le­ices­ter’s Thai vice-chair­man in­sisted there was no se­cret to their mirac­u­lous rise af­ter they inched closer to a pre­vi­ously un­think­able English Premier League ti­tle.

Hun­dreds of blue-shirted Thai fans watched Le­ices­ter’s 4-0 win over Swansea City live on big screens late into the night at an out­door venue in Bangkok as the Foxes opened up an eight-point lead at the top of the ta­ble.

Af­ter­wards Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Sri­vad­dhanaprabha, who is also chief ex­ec­u­tive of Thai­land’s King Power duty-free em­pire, said Le­ices­ter’s rise is “very good for foot­ball and for peo­ple who love sport”.

“I play sport as well and I un­der­stand that in­spi­ra­tion from (striker Jamie) Vardy, in­spi­ra­tion from Le­ices­ter has in­spired eve- ry­one in the world,” he said, in rare com­ments to me­dia.

“We don’t have a se­cret... the play­ers... are try­ing so hard, and the spirit in the team is so good.”

Top’s pub­lic­ity-shy fa­ther Vichai Sri­vad­dhanaprabha owns the Bri­tish club, but Top is hands on in run­ning it as well as be­ing the King Power CEO.

Le­ices­ter only nar­rowly sur­vived rel­e­ga­tion last year but Clau­dio Ranieri’s side have taken this sea­son by storm with their high­en­ergy, at­tack-minded ap­proach. Mahrez be­came the first African to be named Eng­land’s Pro­fes­sional Foot­baller’s As­so­ci­a­tion player of the year on Sun­day, while the pro­lific Vardy has net­ted 22 times.

The Foxes, or ‘Si­amese Foxes’, are now be­gin­ning to at­tract fans in Thai­land, where English Premier League gi­ants Manch­ester United, Liver­pool and Chelsea tra­di­tion­ally com­mand a strong fol­low­ing.

“We have 600 peo­ple come to cel­e­brate and en­joy to watch Le­ices­ter, the team that maybe seven years ago no one knew,” said Top.

“We try to tell Thais that you have your team and you have your sec­ond team as Le­ices­ter, so ev­ery time Le­ices­ter play please sup­port.”

Free beer helped draw the crowd but there was no mis­tak­ing the en­thu­si­asm as two goals from Leonardo Ulloa, and one each from Mahrez and Marc Al­brighton pushed Le­ices­ter closer to the tro­phy.

“We’ll be cham­pi­ons no prob­lem,” en­thused Auawut Job, 42, who like many Thais pro­fessed to be­ing a new con­vert to Le­ices­ter ma­nia.

“I was a Liver­pool fan un­til three years ago, but Liver­pool have gone down... all Thais will sup­port Le­ices­ter if they win the league,” he added.

The Sri­vad­dhanaprabha fam­ily have been widely praised for their ju­di­cious spend­ing and ap­point­ments, which have taken Le­ices­ter to the top of the Premier League.

Top was a key voice in Ranieri’s hir­ing and that of for­mer boss Nigel Pear­son, who left in LON­DON — Le­ices­ter City will win the Premier League if they beat Manch­ester United at Old Traf­ford on Sun­day. Tot­ten­ham, the only team who can pip them to the ti­tle, lost ground when they drew 1-1 with West Brom on Mon­day.

Even if they fail to beat United, the Foxes only need three points from three games to be cer­tain of fin­ish­ing top. Spurs are now seven points adrift with three games left, but boss Mauricio Po­chet­tino said: “We still need to be­lieve. We are not go­ing to give up.”

Clau­dio Ranieri’s Le­ices­ter side started the cam­paign as 5,000-1 out­siders for the ti­tle, hav­ing nar­rowly es­caped rel­e­ga­tion last sea­son.

They are now 1-16 to claim their first top-flight suc­cess af­ter leav­ing Manch­ester United, Arse­nal, Manch­ester City and de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Chelsea in their wake.

“There’s still work to do but, in most peo­ple’s eyes, it is done and dusted,” for­mer Foxes de­fender Matt El­liott told BBC Ra­dio 5 live.

For­mer Tot­ten­ham mid­fielder Jer­maine Je­nas said Le­ices­ter’s ti­tle win would be one of the “big­gest ever” sports stories.

“Ev­ery­one’s pinch­ing them­selves be­cause it’s an un­be­liev­able achieve­ment,” the Match of the Day pun­dit added.

“Th­ese play­ers will be leg­ends at Le­ices­ter. They will have done it with class and qual­ity and it’s good for foot- the close-sea­son de­spite a re­mark­able run of games to sur­vive rel­e­ga­tion.

The de­par­ture came shortly af­ter a sex tape scan­dal in­volv­ing three young fringe play­ers - in­clud­ing Pear­son’s son - dur­ing a sum­mer tour of Bangkok.

The mys­tery of Le­ices­ter’s rise is whether it has been case of luck or canny judge­ment — or both — on the part of the own­ers. Thai Bud­dhist monks cer­tainly think good karma helps af­ter they were drafted in to bless the King Power Sta­dium pitch and hand out lucky tal­is­mans to play­ers.

Top said of his fa­ther: “He’s a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man and he tried to chal­lenge him­self to get some­thing done.

“This is one thing that in his dreams he ball. It’s a beau­ti­ful story.”

West Brom man­ager Tony Pulis told BBC Ra­dio 5 live he wanted the East Mid­lands club to win the ti­tle.

“Le­ices­ter is such a won­der­ful story and I don’t think it can hap­pen any­where else but in this coun­try,” he said.

“I just think it’s a won­der­ful, won­der­ful story, but they still have a lot of work to do.”

Le­ices­ter, owned by Thai bil­lion­aire Vichai Sri­vad­dhanaprabha, have al­ready qual­i­fied for the Cham­pi­ons League for the first time.

They started the sea­son as one of the favourites for rel­e­ga­tion, with only the three pro­moted sides — Wat­ford, Nor­wich and Bournemouth — longer odds for the ti­tle. Ranieri, who took charge when Nigel Pear­son was sacked in the sum­mer, was seen as an unin­spired choice by some fans and pun­dits.

“Clau­dio Ranieri, re­ally?” tweeted for­mer Le­ices­ter striker Gary Lineker af­ter the Ital­ian’s ap­point­ment.

MOTD pun­dit and for­mer Eng­land striker Alan Shearer, who won the ti­tle with Black­burn Rovers in 1995, has also de­scribed a po­ten­tial Le­ices­ter ti­tle vic­tory as “the best story of all time”.

If Le­ices­ter are to win at Old Traf­ford, they will have to do so with­out lead­ing goalscorer Jamie Vardy.

He misses the game af­ter the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion gave him an ad­di­tional one­match ban for im­proper con­duct fol­low­ing his dis­missal against West Ham.

— BBC wanted to own the club, and he said I think two or three years be­fore that he want the team to be a suc­cess in the Premier League, and now we are.”

He added: “As a son, I try to make the fa­ther and boss happy.”

Next fix­tures April 30: Stoke City v Sun­der­land, Ever­ton v Bournemouth, New­cas­tle v Crys­tal Palace, West Bromwich Al­bion v West Ham, Wat­ford v As­ton Villa, Arse­nal v Nor­wich City.

May 1: Swansea v Liver­pool, Manch­ester United v Le­ices­ter City, Southamp­ton v Manch­ester City. — Daily Mail

Riyad Mahrez

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