Guardiola takes blame for Mahrez's exile

Riyad Mahrez became Manchester City's record signing in July but has been a peripheral figure lately at the Etihad Stadium.

Riyad Mahrez has not started a top-flight game since the win at Southampton on December 30.   -  Getty Images

Pep Guardiola insists he has complete faith in Riyad Mahrez despite offering sparing first-team opportunities to the Algeria winger of late.

Last January, City launched a deadline-day bid to bring in Mahrez from Leicester City – falling short but eventually getting its man in a club-record £60 million deal during the close season.

The 27-year-old has nine goals in 34 appearances across all competitions for the reigning Premier League champion but has not started a top-flight game since the 3-1 win at Southampton on December 30.

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Two appearances from the bench, four games as an unused substitute and a missed squad altogether at Huddersfield Town have followed, although he has been an ever-present for Guardiola during domestic cup games in 2019.

On the eve of Saturday's FA Cup fifth-round trip to League Two Newport County, Guardiola explained superb form from the likes of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling was making life difficult for Mahrez.

Asked why he was not playing the City boss replied: "I have a reason. I am the reason. He is absolutely not guilty.

"I am sad because he is training incredibly, he is an incredibly talented player. But in this moment we have five strikers. For example the last games [home wins over Arsenal and Chelsea] Leroy [Sane] hasn't played.

"We have incredible players, like for example Bernardo and Raz in top, top form and that is the only reason why, there’s no particular reason, like [me] being upset or something like that.

"He is a guy we are happy with, but unfortunately I am not kind with him. In fact, I cannot give him the minutes he deserves, so I'm sorry. That's all I can say."

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Mahrez coming in to bolster an already stacked City forward line during a period when gifted youngsters such as Jadon Sancho, Brahim Diaz and most recently Rabbi Matondo have left the club has not helped his standing among some sections of the Etihad Stadium fanbase.

There have also been suggestions the 2015-16 Premier League winner does not have the requisite quality to compete with the likes of Sterling, Sane and Silva, but Guardiola gives those the short shrift.

"He has a level, but give him five or six games in a row playing he is going to play at the level of Sterling or Bernardo or the players who play," said the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss.

"Because in two months, when we played four or five games in a row he was incredible, outstanding.

"I don’t have any doubts about his quality. Just keep going, not complain too much, move forward and fight more and more and more. His time is coming. It's coming and I'm pretty sure he is going to play good."

After taking on giant killer Newport, City visits Schalke in the Champions League before facing Chelsea in the EFL Cup final next Sunday.

Having such attractive fixtures on the horizon will not serve as an excuse, however, if its manager finds focus waning at Rodney Parade.

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"I expect the best performance by each one of them. Focus on all the details," Guardiola added.

"That is the best way to prepare for Schalke and the Carabao Cup final. When you have a final in a week, or a tough game in the Champions League, then you concentrate, you train on the set-pieces, the pressing, those details in tough conditions.

"That is good, we need it. If not, you arrive there a little bit relaxed and then you’re out. Maybe Newport will help us for the final and Schalke."

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