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Mahrez happy to prove the naysayers wrong

Riyad Mahrez has scored seven goals in the Premier League this term to lie second in the scoring chart, behind only team-mate Jamie Vardy.
Riyad Mahrez has scored seven goals in the Premier League this term to lie second in the scoring chart, behind only team-mate Jamie Vardy.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Life could hardly be brighter for Leicester City and their attacking midfielder Riyad Mahrez, who has scored seven goals in the Premier League this season.

The French Algerian has excelled since he arrived 20 months ago from Le Havre, the French second division club, for £400,000 (S$864,000).

"Everybody was saying to me, 'Riyad, England is not for you. It is too physical, too strong. Spanish football would suit you better'," says the 24-year-old, who also has five assists from 10 league appearances this term.

"So I never thought I would play in England. Then I spoke to my agent and he said it would be very good for me. And I spoke with my family. I said, 'OK, I will give it a go'. When I started training and playing games, I thought to myself, 'I was stupid to hesitate'."

Credit is due to Steve Walsh, Leicester's head of recruitment, who ignored some of the statistics, which were not particularly impressive, and watched Mahrez several times. The previous manager, Nigel Pearson, was not slow to give Mahrez his chance in the Championship after he signed in January 2014.

"Nigel was like a dad to me, because when I came here, he was always speaking to me and he gave me a lot of confidence," says Mahrez. "Sometimes he shouted and screamed at me, but it was for my own good."

Pearson's paternal role should not be underestimated. Mahrez grew up in Sarcelles, just north of Paris, the son of a Moroccan mother and Algerian father in a diverse community where he made many friends while playing football in the streets.

His father, Ahmed, had been a keen footballer and was a big figure in his life. It was a huge shock when he died of a heart attack aged 54, when Riyad, the youngest of four children, was 15. Life was a struggle, but Mahrez does not want to exaggerate his plight.

"We definitely weren't rich. Not poor - poor is a hard word. My mum always came home from work and did everything, so we ate well."

His father's death did have the effect of crystallising what he wanted to do with his life.

His form for his local team in Sarcelles, then for Quimper in Brittany, attracted interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille. But Mahrez chose to move to Le Havre so he could break more quickly into the first team. It was a clever strategy, especially as he was still raw.

His move to Leicester also reaped rewards. His form in their Championship-winning season led to a call-up for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for Algeria - a country he chose over France partly out of respect for his father. Others started to take notice when he had an excellent season in the Premier League last term, even though for a large part of it Leicester looked doomed.

When he came back from the African Nations Cup last term, he played a huge role in Leicester's remarkable end-of-season recovery. That form has continued.

His brace in the 3-2 victory over West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, when Jamie Vardy scored for an eighth successive league game, ensured Leicester will be in the top four at the end of the game week.

Only Vardy (11) has scored more league goals than Mahrez this term.

"It's a dream playing in this team," he said at the Hawthorns. "We're always playing attacking football."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Mahrez happy to prove the naysayers wrong'. Print Edition | Subscribe