Leicester paying the price for mediocre Mahrez
Leicester might be better off without their AWOL Algerian
Claudio Ranieri wanted Messi. He got a messy performance instead.
Riyad Mahrez's steady drift towards the game's periphery was the most significant lowlight on a night of lowlights.
Even Superman must descend in the end, but Mahrez is plummeting and he's dragging Leicester City with him.
Foxes manager Ranieri finds himself in the unenviable position of dealing with his best player gradually becoming one of his worst.
Chelsea, the champions of 2015, suffered a similar predicament with Eden Hazard, who also suffered a decline after his title-winning heroics.
But the Blues had other artists to cover the creative shortfall.
At Leicester, there really is only one Riyad Mahrez.
When he goes AWOL, the Foxes fail to beat minnows like Middlesbrough in a non-sporting contest of paint-stripping proportions.
The 0-0 scoreline felt almost irrelevant last night, a minor reward for the bored audience's patience.
The EPL money men will never accept a winter break, but a less hectic festive period must be seriously considered in a bid to sidestep turgid fare like this in the future.
Mahrez’s mind is elsewhere... This is the difficult second season and he’s failing miserably... His manager is saying he’s not stimulated enough. It’s damning to his character.Arsenal legend Ian Wright
Coming just 48 hours after the New Year games, Ranieri made five changes, which made sense. His tactical tweak did not.
His 4-4-2 was dropped in favour of a narrower midfield, presumably to deal with Boro's 4-5-1, but the lack of width granted Boro's fullbacks a licence to press.
Had Alvaro Negredo presented himself as a more balletic attacking option, rather than the hippo in hobnailed boots he resembled last night, Boro might have fashioned a shot on target in the first half.
But the Riversiders share the wretched form of Mahrez.
If Leicester's stumbles come as no surprise, their maverick's inconsistency remains a dispiriting spectacle nonetheless.
Ranieri called on last season's PFA Player of the Year and African Player of the Year to emulate the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and see his accolades as stepping stones to further glory, rather than an end product.
Leicester City have garnered only 21 points from their first 20 games this season, the worst return by an EPL title holder.
But the Algerian's tally of seven goals falls short of his total of 17 last season and he rarely looked like improving that figure against a limited Boro defence.
His performance appeared handicapped by listlessness, as if body and spirit are no longer in sync.
Jamie Vardy's absence through suspension didn't help. Mahrez missed his old partner's pace and Leonardo Ulloa was rarely on the same wavelength.
But Mahrez's personal struggles were equally evident. His inventive spark, so captivating last season, had deserted him.
Perhaps the 25-year-old should have followed N'Golo Kante and seized a grand payday elsewhere because the current incarnation is neither here nor there.
His recent history and pedigree mostly guarantee his place in the line-up, but his form doesn't.
As a dire first half petered out, Shinji Okazaki put Mahrez clean through.
But the Algerian hesitated, allowing Fabio da Silva to make a fine interception.
He was off the pace, the story of his season.
Ironically, Mahrez's departure for the African Nations Cup might allow Ranieri to shuffle a stale pack.
With the creative king away, a jack of all trades could be the kind of player required in a relegation scrap.
Indeed Mahrez's inertia, along with Leicester's squeezed midfield, allowed Boro to dominate the second half, but the hosts are the lowest scorers in the EPL for good reason. They lack an attacking focal point.
Leicester eventually improved, but only after Mahrez's substitution in the 71st minute.
He trudged off to half-hearted applause and now heads for Africa.
Sadly, on current form, he won't be particularly missed.