Pep Guardiola has challenged Riyad Mahrez to play a key role in Manchester City’s quadruple bid as the club’s record signing struggles to live up to his £60 million ($79 million) price tag.
City were far from their imperious best in Wednesday’s narrow 1-0 win over West Ham, but the result kept the champions just one point behind Premier League leaders Liverpool ahead of their trip to Bournemouth on Saturday.
Guardiola has stressed his concerns over fatigue affecting his squad, with last weekend’s League Cup final win over Chelsea coming at a cost as Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte both suffered injuries that will sideline them for several weeks.
The City boss attempted to rotate his squad against West Ham, handing Algeria winger Mahrez just his 11th league start of the season.
However, the former Leicester star turned in a sub-par performance and it was not until he and fellow wide man Leroy Sane were taken off early in the second half — replaced by Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva — that City looked anything like their best.
City have the international break in mid-March to look forward to, and a relatively kind run of domestic league fixtures either side of it.
But they also have their Champions League involvement and an FA Cup quarter-final visit to Swansea to factor in.
So Guardiola is looking for better productivity from Mahrez and all his other squad players over what could be a historic final few weeks of the season as they chase three more trophies.
“Hypothetically, we have 20 games left in the season — 10 Premier League games and if we get to the finals of the cups — and if you think we are only going to play with Bernardo and Raheem, that is not going to happen,” Guardiola said.
“They know what they have to do, train hard, compete hard, they are going to play minutes.
“With some players, it will be easy for me; but some players can’t sustain (playing) every three days. Everybody has to make their contribution then, when I see their performance, I’m going to take decisions.
“I can’t live with just Sergio Aguero, for example, we need Gabriel (Jesus) to come as quickly as possible to help us to do that.”
Jesus, out since sustaining a hamstring injury in the FA Cup win over Newport in the middle of February, is another player currently unavailable to Guardiola, although his inclusion in the Brazil squad for next month’s friendlies suggests he is not far from being available.
Yet Guardiola’s current issues would be less problematic if he could rely on Mahrez, who has so far failed to repay the hefty fee City splashed out for his services last year.
Mahrez has been limited to 11 substitute appearances, to add to his 11 starts, in the league, an indication that he has yet to convince Guardiola that he is worth a regular role among his all-star cast.
The winger has scored 10 goals this season, but the fact seven of those have come in games when City have scored four or more suggests he has looked good against mediocre opposition but less effective against the better teams.
“Football depends on one second most of the time,” explained Guardiola after the West Ham win.
“It’s arriving at the right time, at the right moment.
“Kevin De Bruyne made three incredible actions early in the game and Riyad was one second later.
“Just half a second before, Riyad was in the perfect position. So Riyad played well but, unfortunately, his early chance, he would usually score, he missed.”
Mahrez, virtually unplayable for long periods of Leicester’s title-winning season in 2016, looks like a player still not completely in sync with his City teammates.
Solving that problem would be major boost for Guardiola as he eyes another spectacular haul of trophies.