After starting Manchester City’s past two Premier League games on the bench, Riyad Mahrez has returned to Pep Guardiola’s starting XI for the visit of Manchester United.
City have not been at their irresistible best in recent weeks, having struggled to break down some compact defenses and create clear goal-scoring opportunities.
The Blues profited from defensive mistakes in the loss to Tottenham and the 1-0 win over Everton last weekend, but in the Manchester derby Guardiola will be hoping that his side can get the job done without needing a helping hand.
That is partly because of the occasion – there is never a good time to lose to your cross-town rivals – but largely because defeat to United could allow Liverpool to seize the advantage in the Premier League title race.
Jurgen Klopp’s side beat West Ham 1-0 at Anfield on Saturday, reducing City’s lead at the top of the table to three points. Defeat to day would allow Liverpool to go top of goal difference, should they win their game in hand.
Simply put, City must get the job done today. In the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, United are likely to try and exploit City on the counter-attack, defending deep before breaking up field with the pace of Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga.
City have struggled to break down compact defenses recently and, as Mahrez showed in the FA Cup win at Peterborough on Tuesday, the best solution is to have your most incisive and clinical attackers on the pitch.
The Algerian does not have a great record against United – he has scored just one goal in 15 matches against them – but there is no doubting that he is City’s hottest attacker right now.
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With 19 goals in 32 appearances in all competitions, Mahrez is the Blues’ top scorer this season and is enjoying the best goal-scoring campaign of his career.
With Luke Shaw and Raphael Varane also unavailable, Ralf Rangnick’s side will have a somewhat makeshift look in defense. Mahrez is the City player best equipped to exploit that, or create something from nothing if they keep City at bay.
Mahrez has never been universally adored at City fans like some of his teammates, but if he plays a key role in a crucial derby day win there will be a growing argument that he has been their most important player this season.
Do you think Riyad Mahrez will inspire City to a derby day win? Follow our City Is Ours writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.