You wonder what went through Riyad Mahrez’s mind when the fourth official’s board went up before the hour mark and he was to be withdrawn for the final 34 minutes or so.
Manchester City were hot and bothered having fallen behind to a first-half Matty Cash effort and the Algerian was to play no part in the rescue act against Aston Villa.
When Philippe Coutinho doubled the Villans’ advantage with 20 minutes remaining, ending a goal drought that lasted just over two months, the Cityzens were one Liverpool goal away from requiring three themselves to avoid a final-day collapse very few observers foresaw.
The headlines were starting to write themselves, especially for a City side that dramatically exited the Champions League and were seemingly set to blow their chances for the Premier League title on the last day.
For Mahrez, the looming hurt was likely going to hurt double and then some. The wide attacker had been a protagonist in a fightback in the penultimate gameweek at West Ham United, where Pep Guardiola’s charges fought back from 2-0 down to level in the game’s closing stages.
However, his failure from 12 yards with four minutes of normal time remaining placed added pressure on Sunday’s Villa encounter. Had Manchester City’s magical six minutes not followed in a roaring turnaround, the Algerian’s pain would have been indescribable.
Not since February 2005 had the Manchester outfit overturned a two-goal deficit to claim three points, a prolonged run they ended on Sunday to secure a dramatic 3-2 success.
Indeed, Mahrez’s joy at witnessing those six minutes that, more or less, saved the club’s season meant even more to him in a calendar year that has been packed with a plethora of setbacks for club and country.
A talented Algeria side were backed to retain their Africa Cup of Nations crown in Cameroon at the turn of the year. However, rather than dominate their group and match or even surpass Italy’s 37-game unbeaten record, the Dessert Warriors suffered the ignominy and disappointment of a group stage exit.
Algeria became the first defending champions since Ivory Coast in 2017 to fail to qualify from their group and their two losses suffered in the opening three games meant they matched Cameroon’s 1990 side as the first reigning champions to lose two group stage games.
Their off-kilter shooting marred their title defence and Mahrez, the star of the side, undoubtedly shouldered a lot of that blame, especially as he had been decisive in the 2019 success.
Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten run was undoubtedly the finest of any African side, but the dissatisfaction of not matching Roberto Mancini’s Italy rankled.
The expectation, though, was for the Fennecs to put the pain of their early Afcon exit behind them and qualify for the World Cup finals to be held in Qatar later this year. They were pit against the Indomitable Lions in the third round of qualifying, a two-legged playoff against one of Africa’s great footballing sides to ensure participation at the finals.
Regardless of that ignominious elimination at the continental showpiece, Djamel Belmadi’s men were favourites. A 1-0 win in Douala enhanced their chances and put the North African nation in the driver’s seat before the reverse fixture in Blida.
However, a Karl Toko Ekambi strike in the 124th minute devastated the two-time African champions who looked to have done enough when Ahmed Touba made it 1-1 in the 118th minute of extra time.
Belmadi’s wild bellow of frustration on that night was telling.
The dual disappointment with Algeria meant Mahrez was going to miss out on successive World Cup finals, following the Fennecs’ absence in 2018. But, at least, City were still competing on three fronts and an already devastating 2022 could end with domestic success in the FA Cup and Premier League while a maiden Champions League crown was doable.
Losing 3-2 to competitive rivals Liverpool in the semi-finals of the sport’s oldest cup competition was hurtful but a dramatic, unforeseen collapse at the Bernabeu meant Mahrez and his club teammates needed to win this year’s league title to avoid ending 2021/22 without a trophy.
Defeating Aston Villa on Sunday was thought to be a formality, especially for a side that had won six on the trot against the West Midlands outfit and had claimed nine wins in 10 against the Villans.
The rip-roaring nature of the final day saw an emotional Guardiola win his 10th league title since 2008/09, more than any other manager in that time.
For Mahrez, the elation must have been accompanied by a sense of relief. Another failure would have been hard to take and devastating to stew over throughout the summer.