Riyad Mahrez ended his self-imposed exile from Leicester City on Friday, opening up the possibility of a dramatic return against Manchester City, whose pursuit of the Algerian provoked Mahrez’s stand-off with the Foxes.
Mahrez, 26, has missed two Premier League matches and had not trained with the team since the move he desperately wanted to runaway leaders City fell through due to Leicester’s demands on January 31, transfer deadline day.
Leicester have struggled without their star midfielder, losing 2-1 at Everton before failing to beat struggling Swansea City 1-1 at home last weekend.
Mahrez appeared to have been ruled out of Saturday’s match at the Etihad by Leicester manager Claude Puel when he addressed the media on Thursday and an immediate return still looks unlikely.
However, Mahrez’s sudden U-turn could see Puel provide him with the perfect platform with which to show City why they should maintain their interest when the transfer window reopens in the summer.
“I hope he can come back and work hard with the team sooner rather than later, of course, we will see,” Puel said.
“The most important thing for me is to keep Riyad and the club and the fans united and in a good way about this. It is important to keep a good feeling together through these difficulties.”
According to Sky Sports, Mahrez has been hit with a £240,000 ($334,000) fine for failing to report to training over the past week.
The Paris-born player’s frustration is born out of Leicester’s astronomical demands for a player they signed for a reported £350,000 from French second division side Le Havre in 2014.
– Transfer request –
Despite a second transfer request from Mahrez in eight months, Leicester reportedly held out for £80 million, with even City’s cash-rich Abu Dhabi owners apparently unwilling to go beyond a deal worth £50 million plus a player City valued at £15 million, believed to be 21-year-old winger Patrick Roberts who is currently on loan at Celtic.
“I want him to come back soon and play, because we enjoy watching him,” said City boss Pep Guardiola on the prospect of facing Mahrez.
“I hope he’ll come back soon with Leicester and play at his level.”
City had been forced into trying to find a quick fix when German winger Leroy Sane was ruled out for at least six weeks by ankle ligament damage, joining a growing injury list of attacking players.
Adding to Mahrez’s anger is that other heroes of Leicester’s stunning title-winning triumph in 2015/16 — N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater — have been allowed to leave the club and join Chelsea with far less resistance.
However, the club and player could come to a mutually beneficial agreement at the end of the season despite the tension arising from the recent stand-off.
Leicester’s hand may finally be forced by the fact that Mahrez will have two years left on his contract, the point at which many clubs choose to cash in before the value of their prized assets start to depreciate.
While City may not be in such a desperate situation there could still be a queue for his services, with earlier reported claims in the French media that Liverpool were interested in a player who could fill the creative void left by Philippe Coutinho’s £142 million departure to Barcelona.