‘Street footballer’ proves class
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