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Minus Mahrez: The Fatalist Perspective

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What now?

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Slouched into our couch on a Saturday morning, I half-watch the opening minutes of Tottenham-Huddersfield as I creep towards awake.

But at some point after kickoff, eight minutes in or maybe 10, the little box I’m waiting for begins to appear in the top right corner of the TV screen.

Swansea 1, West Ham 0. It’s early, but not looking good for the Hammers.

Burnley 2, Everton 1. That one’s final.

And finally, the score I’m looking for. Leicester City 0, Bournemouth 0.

And so I’ll sit, slightly more upright, certainly more awake, for the next two hours or so, tracking my team through those tiny, ever-changing scores in the little box, until that team falls behind, on a penalty kick. The team, for me, is Leicester, and Foxes Twitter tells me there’s some controversy over the penalty.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
Kasper Schmeichel pleading his case with the referee.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

If you’re American and your team isn’t Manchester City or Chelsea or Manchester United or the other handful of Premier League teams whose every step is televised in the United States every weekend, this is one way to follow them in games when they aren’t playing the Big Six and, thus, on TV -- Twitter, the little score box, and either online highlights or maybe “Match of the Day” much later.

And whatever the controversy was with the penalty, it doesn’t matter -- good grief, Leicester! Behind. At home. To Bournemouth. Seriously?

And this after dull, desultory draws against Stoke and freaking Swansea in their last two home matches (wrapped messily around the 5-1 road loss to Man City that I’ve decided to wave away as if it never happened).

I keep one eye on the little box as the minutes slide by, waiting for something to change.

But there it stays. 0-1.

And then as the slate of games is winding down, going final up and down the fixture list, the score I’m watching for rolls around one last time.

Leicester 1, Bournemouth 1.

I turn to Foxes Twitter looking for confirmation. What happened? What changed?

The tweets roll by fast, but all pointing to the same, inevitable explanation.

“RIYAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

And then, finally, one with a video clip. This must be whatever it is that Mahrez has done to Bournemouth.

The clip is blurry, a recording of a TV replay recorded on someone’s phone.

But through the blur, the magic - and that word will be used again and again to describe this goal over the next couple of days - is absolutely clear.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
Riyad Mahrez lining up the magic.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

In the 97th minute, on a free kick from well outside Bournemouth’s box - like 30 yards out - and a few feet left of the left post, Mahrez strikes. He bends the ball hard left and low at the spot where Jamie Vardy is stepping casually away from the position he’d taken up near the end of the Cherries’ wall, turning his back to Mahrez and toward the net. Vardy is positioning himself for a potential rebound, I know, but I like to think he turns to enjoy the moment, knowing what’s about to happen.

Mahrez knows it, from virtually the instant he strikes the ball, sprinting hard right on a path toward the far sideline, where the benches are.

Around the ball bends, well wide - six or seven feet? is that possible? - of the goal, before it starts its arc back on frame.

On his goal line, Asmir Begovic sees the ball come from well wide of the wall, his wall, the one he’d meticulously set to cover that side of the goal like every keeper always does. He shuffles an uneasy step to his right.

Now Begovic, too, can see what’s about to happen. The ball is coming back on goal. Hard. And he could have pushed that wall two or three more feet to the right and it wouldn’t have helped.

So he throws himself to his right, horizontal, arms reaching as far toward the post as they can, just as the ball skips off the turf.

And it… just… slips… by.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
Asmir Begovic helplessly watching as Riyad Mahrez’s strike slips by.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

I imagine the noise as the ball pops the back of the net, that quick sound of the heavy, braided twine being struck that a keeper playing without an audience hears from behind him, confirming the attacker has found his target.

But Begovic never heard that. I doubt he heard much of anything but the crashing roar of stunned relief from the King Power Stadium crowd.

That strike from Mahrez sent an electric shock through a team struggling through a midseason slump, much like his goals and assists and almost always have since he joined Leicester, a run that has just reached its end. This time, his departure for Manchester City is officially done.

And Mahrez himself arguably should take some of the blame for that slump. The Foxes were riding high until Mahrez, unhappy that Leicester declined to sell him over the winter to Man City, was a no-show at practice for a week. What followed was a run of underachieving 1-1 draws.

But, watching that Twitter feed scroll, a photo rolls by that makes me again stop the flow of tweets. That electric jolt lights up Christian Fuchs and Demarai Gray, neither of whom was playing but both of whom are up on the sideline and, mouths wide open, yelling with happy disbelief as Mahrez runs toward them and the rest of the team to celebrate the draw he’d just conjured. A bunch of guys in blue jerseys follow, plus one in white, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, thrashing around and punching the air like he’d just won the World Cup.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
Riyad Mahrez buried under a pile of celebrating bodies.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Whatever tension Mahrez’s absence created, if there was any, it’s gone.

He has that kind of power, and grace.

Leicester, my viewing habits are quick to remind me, is a middling team. A group of mostly adequate players who at their best snatch goals on the counter, defend doggedly, and, every season they remain in the Premier League, before they can think of anything else, must scrape together 40 points to fight off relegation.

That was true even last season when, after their miraculous league title, they were winning their Champions League group and playing on into the quarterfinals. Claudio Ranieri lost his job because his team, even then, was staring straight into the possibility of relegation.

And it became even more true as this season wore on. Draw after disappointing draw against slightly lesser middlin’ teams that, even now, might see current manager Claude Puel shown the door.

In fact, there isn’t a ton of difference between the Foxes’ starting 11 and the team at the bottom of the table, West Brom, outside of maybe Vardy, Harry Maguire, Wilfred Ndidi, Vicente Iborra, and, more than any of them, Mahrez.

The little midfielder is something else entirely.

Dropped onto the right wing of this mostly blue-collar, work-harder side, the Algerian is a delicate mix of skill and audacity slipping dangerously, endlessly, toward the opposition’s goal.

Officially, he weighs 134 pounds. That doesn’t equal even three-fifths of a Maguire, Mahrez’s 6-4, 220-pound center back teammate.

Leicester City v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League
Harry Maguire (back left) dwarfing Riyad Mahrez (front left).
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

But the lethality of Mahrez’s left foot leaves me wondering why none of Leicester’s opponents ever assign someone to watch just him, up close and with a fistful of his jersey, for all 90 minutes.

Because Mahrez is, as Bournemouth has just learned, always one strike away from doing something special and skilled and daring and that absolutely should not work for a team like Leicester, but will nonetheless snatch a point or maybe three right out of your hands and give it to the Foxes, leaving you crushed and shaking your head.

Mahrez does not, for the most part, play defense, leaving poor Danny Simpson mostly alone to guard that right flank whether it’s one, two, or more attackers coming at him.

And as long as Mahrez can find Vardy on the run with a ball that drops right onto the speedy striker’s right foot, or create a sliver of space as he dribbles across the top of the opponent’s box and slashes a shot that finds the net, I don’t care.

Fairly regularly a commentator or someone randomly on Twitter will say, as a matter of fact, that Mahrez is too good for Leicester.

They may be right.

On this team he stands out in a way he never would at Man City (or certainly Barcelona, the last place he apparently dreamt of leaving Leicester for before that would-be transfer failed to materialize, too). At the King Power, Mahrez is the flash and the sizzle, not one of many delicately crafted, highly specialized parts that make up the finely tuned whole. And now he has finally moved on, taking his magic with him.

I’m not sure a club like Leicester get to have that sort of magic very often, no matter how well they scout the French lower divisions - where Mahrez came from - or how much money the Foxes’ wealthy owners can offer. Who last was that special for Leicester? Gary Lineker?

Vardy is special, too, but in a very different way. He is fast and skilled, but also gritty and hard and plays like someone told him he damn well better keep running or he might just wind up back in non-league football, where he started.

So when Mahrez goes, someone will slot in on the right. Maybe it will be Gray, who shows flashes but is short on the daring and certainly that magic that grace the Algerian’s game. Or it could be someone the club adds this summer. At least a handful of names have already become rumors.

But the fatalist in me suspects that, whoever that is, neither they nor anyone else on the field for Leicester will be the player who flashes their left foot and delivers a draw or a win when all else has failed.

Minus the magic, just how big is the drop to the relegation zone? A year ago, West Brom finished a safe, respectable 10th, after all.

Moments after Mahrez’s Bournemouth-breaking goal, Leicester fan @James_English7 set aside the joy and abandon to stare into the future and lay out for us, there on Twitter, just what he saw. I can’t say it any better -- a dark, cold future it might be.

“We’re so f***ed when he leaves.”