Jamie Vardy scored a brilliant hat-trick at the King Power Stadium, but of all the old steamrollering Leicester City title tropes to return on a sodden night it was the sight of Riyad Mahrez in regal, unimpeded form that will linger in the memory.
It is not often a football match is decided by a pair of near-identical cushioned backspun half-volley passes. But then, there are not many footballers quite like Mahrez. Or at least not like Mahrez when the opposition give him space, as Manchester City did here, and when the footballer of the year is able to produce again a performance as decisive and as beautifully ornate as his opening hour in Leicester’s revivalist 4-2 defeat of a confused and brittle City.
There was a sign in the opening seconds something unusual was about to happen. Straight away Pablo Zabaleta, an excellent meat‑and‑potatoes right‑back through the glory years, had taken up a strange, jarring position in the centre circle. Zabaleta jogged further inside. He sprinted out wide, then dawdled awkwardly, like a man on the edge of the dance floor gripped with a sudden sense of vertigo. What was this, you wondered. The false two? The inverted headless-wing-back? For the first quarter of the match Zabaleta kept doing it, drifting around into such interesting spaces, squeezed so uneasily into this new set of tactical skinny jeans it might have almost been possible to miss the fact Leicester were already 3-0 up with 20 minutes gone.
In many ways City were the perfect opponents for Leicester here. Finally: someone willing to underestimate them again. City were perfect opponents for Mahrez too, a team to get his big-game juices flowing, but without the hard‑nosed, double-teaming discipline to reel him in.
Opponents have tended to stand close to Mahrez this season. Here City seemed interested only in imposing their own tactical evolutions. It was a note of disrespect in its own way. Mahrez’s creative abilities are a match for anything in City’s squad. They seemed to have no plan for him in the opening half-hour, during which he duly killed the game.
Vardy’s opening goal after three minutes was a thing of simple beauty, made by three best-of-Leicester touches. Robert Huth headed a clearance back massively, drawing a groan of “Huuuth”. Mahrez’s first touch under the high ball was sublime, a perfect little gossamer nudge to Islam Slimani. He played in Vardy, who spanked the ball with feeling into the far corner. It was in its own way a perfect goal of its type, the living embodiment of Charles Reep-style direct football: three forward passes with that masterly lubricant in the middle.
The King Power Stadium erupted, arms raised, clappers clacked. Two minutes later it was 2-0, the goal again created by a Huth header, laid back by Slimani for Andy King to smash a shot into the top corner. We are staying up, the home fans suggested, a reprise of the old title-run favourite. And for half an hour Leicester were a thing of beauty again, a Leicester tribute act playing all the old familiar tunes.
Mahrez continued to drift and snipe. He Mahrez’ed his way past Fernando, dawdling his leg one way, drifting the other, scarcely leaving an imprint on the grass. With 20 minutes gone he made the third goal. Christian Fuchs punted the ball clear. Mahrez looked up, measured his stride and produced another touch of the divine, cosseting the ball on the run into Vardy’s path. The finish was hard and low and always beating Claudio Bravo. For the first time since February the Mahrez-Vardy assist supply line had been cranked into life again.
Mahrez continued to drift into the spaces in front of City’s defenders. He picked up the ball 40 yards from goal and seemed to beat half the City team at least once with a series of shrugs and swerves, showing that extraordinary ability to freeze the game, look up, yawn, then reel off a pass or a shot.
City regrouped and began to dominate possession, pulling back two fine goals at the end. But the game had gone by then, confirmed by Vardy’s third, rolled in from an angle after the horrendous Stones-Bravo mix-up the City defence had been teasing all evening.
By the end Mahrez had faded to the fringes, his race run. He has taken more criticism than most for Leicester’s slump and with good reason given his elevated status. This was a reminder of what a wonderful footballer he remains against opponents who let him play. City failed to win a tackle in the opening half-hour. For now they continue to look like a fascinating case study in the tension between tactical asceticism, a dream of fluid, evolving Pep-ball, and the lack of hard, basic pragmatism that allowed a wonderful talent the space to bloom.
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