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Iconic Duos: Mahrez and Vardy inspire Premier League fairytale

When Leicester City completed one of the most unlikely feats in English football history by lifting the Premier League title in 2016, two men took the accolades and plaudits: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

The world would later come to fully appreciate the influence of N’Golo Kante on that success, but it was the two attackers who split the PFA Players’ Player and FWA Player of the Year awards – and with good reason.

Between them they registered 41 goals and 17 assists that season, an absolutely crucial contribution to the Foxes’ fairytale accomplishment.

 

It was a classic combination of provider and finisher. Mahrez was proficient at moving the ball upfield and, most importantly, getting it into dangerous areas where Vardy would punish defences who left him with too much space to operate. Something they did over and over again that season.

But their story goes all the way back to January 2014, when the Algerian arrived in the East Midlands from Le Havre for less than half a million. City scout Steve Walsh was the man who plucked him from obscurity, as he did with several members of that title-winning squad, including Vardy who was the first non-league footballer to be sold for £1 million.

The two men developed an almost immediate understanding. On a cold Tuesday night in Birmingham, 17 days after signing for what he initially thought was a rugby club, Mahrez bypassed two midfielders from inside his own half with a simple through ball to find Vardy, who left his defender for dead before smashing the ball home.

That strike came amid a run of 14 goals in 23 games for Vardy as Leicester cantered to the Championship title. They would only lose one more game until the end of the campaign, accruing 102 points in the process. For a club that was in the third tier not long before then, it felt like a high point – they had no idea what was to come.

The pair failed to spark in their first season back in the Premier League, however. Indeed, Mahrez didn’t assist Vardy for a single goal that term. The striker only found the net five times in total as the club somehow avoided relegation, putting together a sensational run of form in the final few months to survive.

That momentum continued into 2015/16 when Claudio Ranieri took over as manager from Nigel Pearson. It took the Italian a few months to find his best XI, which at first did not even include Mahrez. The winger was benched after a 5-2 drubbing by Arsenal, but he returned with a bang a couple of games later.

Mahrez came off the bench at half-time against Southampton in October with a point to prove. He caused Virgil van Dijk no end of problems that day, laying on an assist for Vardy with a precise pass. With the Dutch defender flailing to grab him, the forward lashed the ball into the roof of the net for his ninth goal nine games.

The talk around Leicester’s phenomenal displays got serious in December when they defeated reigning champions Chelsea 2-1 at home. Vardy, of course, scored the opener after running onto an inch perfect cross from Mahrez. It was the kind of pass you would only play if you knew exactly where your teammate was going to end up. Their understanding was becoming telepathic.

The pair left Chelsea’s ‘captain, leader, legend’ John Terry looking like a mug. Mahrez would go on to score the winner in the second half with a spectacular goal, dancing around the helpless Cesar Azpilicueta before swerving the ball bast Thibaut Courtois.

The iconic goal of that campaign came two months later against Liverpool. Mahrez was again the creator and popped a teasing ball over the top for Vardy to run onto. The Foxes forward didn’t hesitate when the ball bounced up at just the right height, connecting with it venomously to rifle it past Simon Mignolet.

That goal was a highlight in an unforgettable season for the Foxes, who – having began the season among the favourites to be relegated – stunned the sporting world to be crowned champions of England for the first time.

If that season was a fairytale written in the stars, then the one that followed was the most brutal of crashes back down to Earth. Defeat on the opening day to Hull City should have set alarm bells off, because it did not get much better from there.

Kante’s departure to Chelsea was a monumental loss to the side, perhaps evidenced most clearly by his winning of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award as the west London outfit returned to the summit of the Premier League.

But Mahrez and Vardy also played well below themselves. They went from 58 goal involvements combined in the club’s title-winning season to just 12 in the next.

They did, however, create one archetypal moment that dismal season.

Amid their shocking performances, they tore Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to shreds. The Catalan was only in the door at Eastlands and was handed a dose of proper route one, no nonsense, get it up ’em English football by the Foxes.

On a rain-soaked Saturday evening, Mahrez received a long ball and laid it on for Vardy with the most delicate, perfectly balanced, first touch pass. He rounded Claudio Bravo and rolled the ball into the net.

The goal was Vardy’s second of an eventual hat-trick, his first in the Premier League, with Leicester’s leading lights having combined once again to secure a 4-2 win and leave City stunned at the King Power.

Guardiola was so suitably impressed that he signed Mahrez for £60m a year and a half later. What’s remarkable is that we got to see him to play with Vardy for so long after the title win, aided by the fact the striker turned down the chance to leave Leicester when offers came in.

They continued to create moments of magic together in that time, with Mahrez’s seven assists for Vardy the most fruitful partnership in the league in 2017/18.

During a draw with Manchester United that December, poor Chris Smalling found himself in a one-on-one situation with Mahrez. The Algerian held the ball for what felt like an eternity as the defender stood and watched helplessly. Eventually, Vardy arrived to take the ball and finish coolly for his 50th Premier League goal.

One of the most iconic duos we have ever had the pleasure of witnessing was entering its final months. In February of 2018 Mahrez went on strike, signalling the beginning of the end. His relationship with the fans was broken, but they got to enjoy one more ridiculous link up.

Against West Brom in March 2018, Mahrez played a long ball over the top for Vardy, as he had done countless times before. But on this occasion, the number nine met it first time with a volley as it arrived over his shoulder.

It’s an unfathomably difficult strike to execute, but he did so with little fuss as the ball flew past Ben Foster, rooted to the ground like an oak tree. It might just be the single best finish in Premier League history.

Their final game together came in May 2018, when Leicester lost 5-4 to Spurs at Wembley. As a parting gift, Mahrez scored once laid on two assists for his partner in crime, the only time he had done so in a single game during their three-and-a-half years together. How fitting.

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