It says something that Riyad Mahrez, with only a week’s training under his belt, pipped Pep Guardiola’s player of the year Bernardo Silva to a starting berth at West Ham.
Perhaps that is a gentle nod to Silva’s pre-season but surely more strikingly it signals a growing feeling around Manchester City that Mahrez is ready to seize his moment in the wake of Leroy Sane’s anterior cruciate ligament injury.
When compared with previous exploits at Leicester, his was largely a debut season to forget, one spent grumbling in private about a lack of starts – just 14 of them in the Premier League. His performances were mixed at best.
Now though the narrative is changing somewhat. Guardiola pored over footage of last season during the summer, dissecting things he might have missed, and conceded that Mahrez’s displays were actually more productive than he gave the Algerian credit for.
That, coupled with the 28-year-old’s plea to cut short his holiday short following the Africa Cup of Nations triumph, saw him out there at the London Stadium and bamboozling poor Aaron Cresswell.
The West Ham left back wasn’t sure whether to tackle or jockey. In the end, Cresswell ended up doing neither. Liverpool might have suffered similar misery had the confusion over medication taken after private nose surgery not led to City whipping him out of Community Shield contention. UK Anti-Doping cleared him to play after a drug test in the week and Guardiola will be mighty glad of that now.
This was a strong start to the season for someone who cost £60million and took a year to settle. Mahrez seems to be playing with more purpose, has a better understanding of the attacking angles City exploit to devilish effect. The beautifully chipped assist for an onrushing Raheem Sterling to score the third proved that. So too the wonderfully crafted pass for Sterling’s eventual hat-trick.
He had a hand in the opening two goals too – both pre-assists, if you will – and appears to have rediscovered that mysterious movement that made him so dangerous at Leicester, evident when winning a late penalty. Guardiola was upset at a first-half miss, slammed into the side-netting after Cresswell was unceremoniously dumped on his backside, yet that felt like a minor blot.
The first goal, eventually scored by Gabriel Jesus, was made by the rampaging run of Kyle Walker but the right back only found himself in the position to cross after Mahrez’s perfectly weighted through-ball.
Kevin De Bruyne was the ultimate architect of the second, slipping Sterling in, but again was only in the position to do so thanks to Mahrez unlocking West Ham’s midfield. Add those to the Sterling assists and winning the penalty and it totals a very fine afternoon indeed.