BIRMINGHAM, England — Danny Drinkwater has seen Riyad Mahrez make fools of his opponents countless times, but this was the first time the opponent in question was him.
Having been Mahrez’s teammate for four years at Leicester City, during which the pair played pivotal roles in the club’s fairytale Premier League title triumph of 2016,
Drinkwater will have known exactly what was coming when the Algerian powered towards him in the 18th minute of Sunday’s game at Villa Park. Yet with a trademark dip of the shoulder, Mahrez stole past his former colleague before planting a low shot into the bottom-right corner to open the scoring of Manchester City’s 6-1 rout of Aston Villa. In a manner that reflected the stark way in which their fortunes have diverged since they parted ways at Leicester, Drinkwater got no closer to his former colleague all afternoon.
If the blame could be shared for Mahrez’s opener, Drinkwater was almost solely responsible for the City winger’s second goal, six minutes later, when he was caught on the ball inside his own box by David Silva and his former sparring partner smashed home. He did not cover himself in glory for the visitors’ third either, shortly before the half-hour mark, tamely nibbling at Kevin De Bruyne’s heels and allowing the Belgian to tee up Sergio Aguero for a zinging shot that flew into the top-left corner from just outside the box.
After Gabriel Jesus added a fourth, gloriously created by De Bruyne, Aguero went on to complete his hat trick with the visitors’ fifth and sixth goals. It gave him the outright record for hat tricks in the Premier League era (12) and increased his career tally of goals in the competition to 177, which took him past Thierry Henry as the top-scoring non-English player in the English top flight during the same period. Mahrez had a hand in Aguero’s hat-trick goal as well, punishing Kortney Hause’s weary pass with a first-time ball into the Argentine, who rifled a shot past Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland.
Drinkwater had left the fray by then, his Villa debut having come to an unceremonious end in the 79th minute. They were the first minutes that he and Mahrez had spent on the pitch together in the Premier League since their final match in Leicester’s colours against Watford in May 2017.
Both players had hoped to leave the King Power Stadium that summer, but it was only Drinkwater whose wish was granted, with Mahrez obliged to spend one last season in the East Midlands while his colleague headed to Chelsea. Drinkwater appeared sporadically in his maiden campaign at Stamford Bridge under Antonio Conte, before disappearing from view entirely when Maurizio Sarri arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2018. Used just as sparingly at Burnley in the first half of the current campaign, this was only his second Premier League start since March 2018.
Unfortunately for Drinkwater, each of his past three league starts — for Chelsea, Burnley and now Villa — has come against Pep Guardiola’s City. The 29-year-old, signed on loan to provide cover for the injured John McGinn, can at least console himself that he will not have to face the defending champions again in the league this season, although they could yet meet Pep Guardiola’s men in the Carabao Cup final.
While he accepted that Drinkwater had been at fault for City’s second goal, Smith defended his decision to throw his new recruit straight into his starting XI. “Danny Drinkwater will make us a better team,” s
aid the Villa manager, whose team at least grabbed a consolation through auxiliary striker Anwar El-Ghazi’s stoppage-time penalty.