Riyad Mahrez must have had mixed feelings about his starring role for Manchester City against Fulham in the FA Cup, but Pep Guardiola was eager to shower him with praise.
On Sunday, the Africa Cup of Nations final sees Egypt and Senegal go head to head, vying to succeed Algeria as champions.
This time around, Algeria put up a dismal defence of their title, with captain Mahrez unable to prevent them tumbling out after the group stage with just one point from three games.
It has meant he has been available to City perhaps sooner than anticipated, and his two goals in the 4-1 win over Fulham on Saturday showed what he brings to Guardiola’s team.
Mahrez fired in a second-half penalty to move City 3-1 in front, before adding the security of the hosts’ fourth goal, a shot with his weaker right foot trickling in via a touch off Fulham defender Tim Ream.
Great performance today again, on to the next one (this right foot ) pic.twitter.com/sasYzCnT6G
— Riyad Mahrez (@Mahrez22) February 5, 2022
Mahrez called it a “great performance”, and he has now scored in his last six appearances across all competitions for City, taking his tally for the team to 15 goals this season, his best tally for the club in a single campaign.
Guardiola was particularly pleased to see Mahrez tuck away another spot-kick, convinced now he has a player who is deadly from 12 yards.
Mahrez has converted his last seven penalties for City, and that means he is the first-choice taker, ahead of Kevin De Bruyne.
“Of course, he is a guy with a mentality to score a goal,” Guardiola said in his post-match news conference.
“As a player, he has a special quality. He understands how he attracts opponents to make one against two, or one against three, and afterwards pass the ball for the free men.
“Close to the box, always you have a feeling that he has to score a goal. We have struggled a lot in the last year to take and score penalties, and now he is a guarantee.
“He is scoring every penalty he is going to take and that is important for us as well, and especially under pressure.
“You take a penalty at 4-0, and it is easy, but last season in Dortmund we were 1-0 down and he scored a penalty, and this season 1-0 [behind] against Arsenal he scored – he had the personality to say, ‘Give me the ball, I’m going to score’, and he did it.”
Guardiola insisted he had been impressed by Championship leaders Fulham, who took a surprise early lead through Fabio Carvalho but were soon themselves trailing, as City hit the front in the 13th minute after goals from Ilkay Gundogan, who was teed up by Mahrez, and John Stones.
“Very pleased to be in the next round,” said Guardiola. “This round showed us there can be many surprises, and we won against a very top team.”
Manchester United lost on penalties to Middlesbrough on Friday, but City were far more clinical against second-tier opposition than their Mancunian rivals.
Since Guardiola took charge in 2016, City have won 42 domestic cup matches across the EFL Cup (20) and FA Cup (22), which is four more than the next side – Chelsea (38).
They are now on a 12-match winning run against Fulham, so as much as Guardiola made a point of saying he rated the “positional game” of Marco Silva’s team, backing them for promotion, these teams remain poles apart in terms of quality.
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