Wednesday 31 August 2016 21:31, UK
After Leicester signed Islam Slimani from Sporting Lisbon, some are wondering where the 28-year-old will fit into Claudio Ranieri's plans. With the help of experts in Portugal and Algeria, Adam Bate discovers the story of a hard-working striker who has been written off before…
It is fitting that Islam Slimani's final game in a Sporting shirt was his goalscoring display against the dragons of Porto in Sunday night's 2-1 victory. They are the opponents against whom the Algerian forward has netted six goals in six league games, thus earning him the nickname of the dragon slayer. It's been a remarkable rise for Sporting's knight.
Leicester are used to such stories, of course. They practically have the monopoly on them, having won the Premier League title with a bargain bunch of underrated journeyman from across the globe. The club even has an Algerian hero of their own in PFA player of the year Riyad Mahrez. But it's Jamie Vardy who provides the more obvious comparison with Slimani.
Leicester's £25m bid for Islam Slimani turned down by Sporting Lisbon - Sky sources
For while Mahrez was in the French second tier at 21, Slimani found himself in the Algerian fourth division. His transfer from CR Belouizdad to Sporting came when 25, the same age at which Vardy traded Fleetwood for the Foxes. If a northern seaside town is obscurity, then what of North Africa and the artificial turf of the third most successful side in Algiers?
Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi has tracked Slimani's progress throughout and, frankly, hopes have not always been high. "He's been an underdog throughout his career," Mehazi tells Sky Sports. "No one would have ever predicted he'd come this far. He was a nobody until Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic called him up for a dead-rubber friendly against Niger."
Slimani was soon accused of having 'square feet' by the local press. Halilhodzic said misses were inevitable, given he'd come from "a small club in the Algerian countryside" and that rawness hasn't left him. As recently as January, Sporting coach Jorge Jesus described Slimani as "a player full of technical and tactical defects" - and these are the views of his admirers.
Despite being written off at every stage of the journey, Slimani has answered the only way he can - through hard work and weight of numbers. The man offered to Nantes for £200,000 in 2013 is now attracting bids of £25m. The man signed by Sporting as back-up for Colombian forward Fredy Montero has become a fan favourite at the Estadio Jose Alvalade.
Slimani seized his chance from the start, coming on as a substitute to score a stoppage-time equaliser at Benfica in November 2013. He then went to the following year's World Cup and scored twice for Algeria - proving a constant threat against eventual winners Germany. Just four years after his debut, he ranks among his country's top five scorers of all time.
"He's not the most technically gifted striker, but what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in heart," says Mezahi. "He gives it 110 per cent every time he steps onto the pitch. Despite his weaknesses, he's become an indispensable player. Again, that's due to his dogged determination and uncanny sense of where the goal is."
There are echoes of Vardy in his direct approach as well as his abrasive attitude. Portuguese journalist Vitor Hugo Alvarenga of Maisfutebol recognises the similarities. "He is a lot like Vardy," Alvarenga tells Sky Sports. "He's a strong-minded player who fights for each ball as if he were playing in the Champions League final. He puts his heart into every game.
"He's got that strong mentality. He argues with the opponents and especially with referees. He's not an easy player to deal with but if he's happy, he's a coach's best friend." That's not always been the case. Slimani showed dissent to Jesus when removed after an hour against Arouca in March. Having been reminded who was boss, he promptly went and scored six in his next five.
|Cristiano Ronaldo||Real Madrid||35||2.0||70|
|Robert Lewandowski||Bayern Munich||30||2.0||60|
|Zlatan Ibrahimovic||Paris St Germain||38||1.5||57|
|Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang||Borussia Dortmund||25||2.0||50|
Even at 28, there's a sense that he's still learning the game. Jesus certainly sees it that way, admitting there's work to do before he can "reach the peak of his potential" and Slimani acknowledges that the coach is "a genius, tactically". Perhaps it's a product of being a late starter, but the tools are there and he's only now learning how to put them all together.
"His greatest strengths are his determination, anticipation, nose for a goal and his heading ability," says Mezahi. "He's very good with his back to goal and when running into open space." But there's more to him than that. "He is not just a physical player," adds Alvarenga. "Like Vardy, he has good quality with his feet and also has very good heading ability."
His reputation as a big-game player is well justified, having scored in five of the six games against the rest of Portugal's top four last season at a rate of better than a goal a game. With Slimani also having tormented Germany at the last World Cup, it's no surprise that those who watch him regularly are optimistic he can rise to the Premier League challenge.
Jesus recently claimed Slimani would score "double the goals Vardy does" and while that's surely an exaggeration, he will offer the physical presence of Leonardo Ulloa coupled with the threat in behind that the big Argentine lacks. Put simply, Slimani will thrive on the crosses of Marc Albrighton as well as the long diagonal passes of Danny Drinkwater.
"He should be expected to adapt to English football quickly," says Mezahi. "He excels in a duel and has superhuman endurance levels." Alvarenga agrees. "I think he would fit just perfectly at Leicester," he adds. "He has power in his game, something crucial to play in the Premier League."
There's a fixture at the end of September that Slimani will have his eye on. Leicester's first ever home game in the Champions League brings Porto to the King Power Stadium. The prospect of a date with the dragon slayer won't appeal to the visitors, but life in the Premier League could well appeal to Islam Slimani. Just don't write him off.