Suez: Of all the big name strikers who took their form and pedigree from Europe’s top leagues into the Africa Cup of Nations, only one has truly lived up to his star billing: Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez.
Fallen by the wayside lie Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Hakim Ziyech of Ajax who both struggled at the end of a long season to inspire Egypt and Morocco respectively.
Both teams have been humbled, the big names left to take their summer break earlier than anticipated.
Nicholas Pepe, who scored 22 goals for Lille last season, has yet to fire. The same can be said of his Senegal teammate Sadio Mane – the Liverpool forward is joint top-scorer with three goals but he has also missed two penalties and has looked rusty throughout.
That leaves the mighty Mahrez who will lead the Desert Foxes in their quarter-final against Ivory Coast tonight.
The Algeria captain has been in wonderful form, his touch and finish in the 3-0 win over Guinea in the last round indicative of a player brimming with confidence.
According to the Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi, the right wing hasn’t allowed that club success to go to his head.
“He is talented and plays for a big club but we mustn’t put him under too much pressure. Riyad has no desire to have the status of star,” said Belmadi after another Mahrez goal had taken Algeria to a 2-0 win in their opening game against Kenya.
It helps Mahrez that he is at the heart of a team whose parts are all functoning smoothly. They have won all four games so far, scoring nine goals and conceding none.
It is a measure of their depth in this tournament that should Mahrez fail, they can call on 22-year-old Napoli striker Adam Ounas who has scored three times already from just 87 minutes on the pitch.
“Algeria are so well organised, so compact, so ‘guardiolesque’ in the way they recover the ball,” said experienced international coach Claude Le Roy.
“Perhaps it is the influence of Mahrez on Djamel (Belmadi).”
As the Desert Foxes prepare for their meeting with Ivory Coast – a team that holds a 3-2 advantage in their seven previous CAN meetings – Mahrez carries the hopes of millions of Algerians across the world as they pray for their first continental triumph in 29 years.
Mahrez isn’t shirking from the pressure. After the win over Guinea in the last round he was clear about the route ahead. “We were very solid, we played a very good match,” he said. “We still have the quarter-final but we also want to go all the way.”