Leicester goal machine Kelechi Iheanacho has gone from being Jamie Vardy’s back-up to one of Europe’s hottest strikers… his challenge now is to keep it going, seal that top-four spot and deliver the FA Cup
- Kelechi Iheanacho has scored 15 goals in all competitions this season
- The Leicester striker has scored 11 of them since early February
- He led Leicester to an FA Cup quarter-final win over Man United and they play Southampton in the semis this weekend
- The Nigerian has found some form at just the right time of the season for his club and was named Premier League player of the month for March
- He has also been rewarded with a new three-year deal to stay at the Foxes
- The arrival of Brendan Rodgers turned his career around at the King Power
- The ex-Man City striker had struggled for minutes since his move back in 2017
After reeling off all the standard footballer’s responses to a post-match television interview, Kelechi Iheanacho let down his guard.
As he turned away from the camera, the Leicester striker let out a scream of pure, instinctive delight.
He had just scored twice to help his side reach their first FA Cup semi-final since 1982, thanks to a 3-1 win over Manchester United – one of Leicester’s most significant results since their Premier League title five years ago.
Kelechi Iheanacho celebrates after scoring his second in the FA Cup win against Man United
Iheanacho’s double last month made it seven goals in four games with his form coming at the ideal time – he has now scored nine in his last six games
Iheanacho’s double against the Red Devils made it seven goals in four games for him – and he’s now got nine in his last six – as the Foxes fight for a Champions League finish alongside the FA Cup.
The Premier League player of the month award for March was handed to Iheanacho after his storming run and there was double delight when he put pen to paper on a new three-year deal until 2024.
After signing the fresh terms at the start of this month he said: ‘I can’t express how I’m feeling. I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m overwhelmed! It’s a great moment and I’m happy that Leicester City gave me a new contract.
‘It’s been a great time here. It’s not been easy, but there’s a lot of people here that are good people, great people to work with. They are nice people and they make me feel comfortable and welcome since I came in.
‘It’s been really great being here. It’s like a family. I’m happy being here and hopefully I can stay here many more years.’
At the head of that family is manager Brendan Rodgers.
‘I’ve always said you can see the improvements in him day to day,’ said the Foxes boss. ‘I’m delighted because he trains so hard.
‘He works well with Jamie Vardy and the combination is really good. He has a bit of everything and he has come up trumps in a lot of the games recently.
‘Kelechi has always contributed. Maybe his confidence was lower [at other times] but he works so hard every day and always comes in and gives his all. You see his confidence now. He’s at the top of his game.
‘Kelechi is probably best with someone up there with him. Those two (Iheanacho and Vardy) are working very well.’
In a fairly short time, he has gone from being Vardy’s deputy to one of Europe’s in-form strikers. The challenge will be to keep it going.
It has not been an easy journey for Iheanacho to get here, and he will be determined not to let his golden moment go to waste.
When he joined Leicester from Manchester City in 2017, the transfer fee – £25million – placed immediate pressure on a player who, despite his impressive goalscoring record, had started only 12 Premier League games.
The Nigerian striker moved to the King Power Stadium from Manchester City for £25m in 2017
Iheanacho has had plenty to smile about this season (pictured after signing his new deal)
Iheanacho was the Premier League player of the month for March
Iheanacho had also had his confidence knocked by a season working with Pep Guardiola, who was clear from an early stage that he would not play a significant part in his long-term plans at City.
Arriving at Leicester, Iheanacho found a dressing room bruised by a dire defence of their 2016 Premier League title, and in which Vardy, Wes Morgan and Kasper Schmeichel held considerable influence.
He had turned down West Ham and Tottenham to move to the King Power Stadium but his early weeks were an uphill struggle.
While Iheanacho is a hugely popular figure at Leicester, with fellow Nigerian Wilfred Ndidi a very close friend, he is not a particularly brash or outgoing personality. That made adaptation a little trickier – as did an injury after 17 minutes of his first appearance, a pre-season friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach.
Iheanacho is a popular figure, though he is not particularly brash (pic with James Maddison)
As is the case with so many players at Leicester, the arrival of Rodgers in February 2019 made all the difference. At Liverpool and Celtic, Rodgers showed great skill in managing senior players like Jamie Carragher and Scott Brown, and he demonstrated the same qualities at Leicester.
If senior men like Vardy, Schmeichel and Morgan are on board with the boss, everything looks rosier, the atmosphere is better, and other players are able to flourish.
Rodgers never doubted Iheanacho’s ability but has been keen to work on his mentality. For perhaps the first time in his club career, Iheanacho is handling the pressure of being a regular starter and he is repaying his manager’s faith in spades.
Indeed, his form has been so good that Leicester fans have even been questioning whether injured duo James Maddison and Harvey Barnes will regain their places automatically when they are fit again.
Brendan Rodgers’ arrival at Leicester manager and the forward can now handle the pressure
Iheanacho is no longer in the shadow of fellow Leicester stiker Jamie Vardy
It’s Southampton up next for Iheanacho, Vardy and Co in the FA Cup semi-final
As for Iheanacho, he wants a trophy on his mantelpiece. He was part of the City squad who lifted the League Cup in 2016 but if he could help Leicester win the FA Cup it would feel considerably more special.
He already has three goals in this season’s competition and if he could add to that tally in the semi-final against Southampton on Sunday and then an eventual final, he wouldn’t be the only one screaming with joy.
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