Leicester's magician Mahrez is first African to pick up PFA gong

LONDON • Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri mused on Sunday that, if he had his wish, every one of his wonderful team-mates would have been honoured as Player of the Year at the Professional Footballers' Association awards night.

Yet, even at the heart of a side whose trademark is their team spirit and collective ethos, the Italian recognised that the individual who has lit up his side most brightly is the 2016 PFA Footballer of the Year, Riyad Mahrez.

"He is fantastic, Riyad is our light. When he switches on, wow, Leicester change colour. That is the truth," Ranieri had enthused earlier in the week.

So, it seemed appropriate that on the day he was honoured by his fellow professionals, the Algerian forward should illustrate what Ranieri was saying before flying to London for the ceremony where he became the first African to win the prestigious award.

Needing a touch of his magic against lowly Swansea City, Mahrez produced some of the wizardry that has been such a regular delight from a man who, at the season's start, was seen more of an unsung journeyman than a magician.

Receiving a booted clearance from Swansea captain Ashley Williams just outside the box, Mahrez took advantage with smooth calm, first feigning to curl his shot into the far corner before eyeing a gap at Lukasz Fabianski's near post and firing home.

The King Power Stadium changed colour, all right. That goal sent Leicester on their way to a 4-0 win which puts them on the verge of a fairy tale title win - and not for the first time this season, it was the 25-year-old Mahrez who had been the game changer.

Jamie Vardy has been sensational in finding the net and N'Golo Kante's midfield engine has never stopped purring.

Yet, it is Mahrez, with his artistry and will-o'-the-wisp skills delivering 17 league goals and 11 assists, who has felt like the rarest of finds.

It seems an unthinkable bargain now that he should have only cost Leicester £400,000 (S$781,000) in 2014 when he joined from Ligue 2 side Le Havre.

The suggestion now is that it would cost Europe's elite nearly 80 times as much for his signature.

The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Dele Alli, a highly impressive performer in his first top-flight season, took the Young Player of the Year award.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Leicester's magician Mahrez is first African to pick up PFA gong'. Print Edition | Subscribe