sunny.png
Sunday August 1st, 2021 1:26PM

Back-up to star man: Iheanacho's stunning rise at Leicester

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

Being a back-up was all Kelechi Iheanacho ever knew.

Fresh from being voted the best player at the Under-17 World Cup in 2013, the Nigeria striker signed his first professional contract at Manchester City the following year but had Sergio Aguero, among others, ahead of him.

Iheanacho had his moments — mostly as a substitute or in the early rounds of cup competitions — but was never likely to be first choice at City at such a young age and moved to Leicester in 2017 after one year under Pep Guardiola.

There, another club great stood in his way: Jamie Vardy. And with Leicester playing one up front, Iheanacho again found himself mostly stuck on the bench and had scored only nine Premier League goals in 3½ seasons by the time an injury crisis hit the team in February.

Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers had been struck by the way Iheanacho always had a positive mentality in training, even in his many low and frustrated moments. He also noticed how diligent the player was in working on his finishing, unlike many strikers Rodgers had worked with who relied on their natural talent.

So, Rodgers altered his system and chose to pair Iheanacho with Vardy.

Six years into his senior career, the 24-year-old Iheanacho was finally getting a run of games on the highest stage.

He hasn’t looked back.

With 13 goals in 12 straight appearances, he is the form striker in English soccer since the start of March and is the player most likely to lead Leicester to victory in the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

“My only worry with him,” Rodgers said, “is that he's running out of celebrations. He needs to keep looking at the numbers of celebrations he has left. Hopefully he can keep scoring and keep celebrating.”

Nowhere have Iheanacho’s goals been more important than in the FA Cup.

He scored winners against Brighton in the last 16 and against Southampton in the semifinals at Wembley Stadium. In between, his double helped Leicester beat Manchester United 3-1 in the quarterfinals, in an individual display that made many really sit up and realize Iheanacho’s emergence was no flash in the pan.

“I think FA Cup loves me,” said Iheanacho, who scored a hat trick for City in a cup match at Aston Villa in 2016 in just his fifth start for the team. “And I love the FA Cup.”

Breaching Chelsea’s defense will be another challenge entirely, with the team having kept 19 clean sheets in 26 games since Thomas Tuchel arrived in late January. It is the elite defense in Europe at the moment, not just England.

Yet Iheanacho’s finishing has been of such a high standard that he is almost impossible to keep quiet. Where he stands almost alone, at least in the Premier League, is his ability to get shots off quickly by nudging the ball slightly to one side and striking it immediately with little back-lift but still plenty of power, before his marker is set.

There have been two examples of that in recent weeks — his sublime winner against Crystal Palace on April 26 and then what proved to be just a consolation strike against Newcastle last week.

Leicester’s own goalkeeper knows all about that.

“He’s so good at the particular one where he shifts it and then puts it through the defender’s legs and wrongfoots the goalkeeper,” Kasper Schmeichel said. “He does it in training all the time. He’s a nightmare in training, to be fair.”

Iheanacho’s talent has always been there. In that Under-17 World Cup eight years ago, he scored six goals and led Nigeria to the title.

At one stage while at City he had the best goals-to-minutes ratio of any player in Premier League history who had scored a minimum of 10. That came after he scored 12 goals from only 19 shots, netting every 96 minutes.

No wonder Guardiola called him “a natural goalscorer.”

Still, his current form has come out of nowhere. He didn’t score a single league goal from September 2018 to December 2019. This season, he hadn’t scored in the league until Feb. 3 — now he’s Leicester’s top scorer and has turned Vardy into a creator more than a poacher.

“He has very quickly won over people,” Rodgers said. “That is just through hard work, resilience and talent. What you are seeing is a young player at the top of his game.”

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

___

Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Sports
© Copyright 2021 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Back-up to star man: Iheanacho's stunning rise at Leicester
Being a back-up was all Kelechi Iheanacho ever knew
7:37AM ( 6 minutes ago )
Pennsylvania voters to decide racial equity amendment
Next week, nearly a year since the George Floyd killing, Pennsylvania voters will decide whether to make greater anti-discrimination protections explicit in the state constitution
7:28AM ( 16 minutes ago )
Free offices with a view: 4 lighthouses, courtesy of feds
The federal government is making available for free some waterfront workspaces with killer views
7:20AM ( 23 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
LEADING OFF: Yanks' outbreak, Miley chases Vander Meer
The virus-stricken Yankees are set to open a series in Baltimore a day after revealing shortstop Gleyber Torres tested positive for the coronavirus despite being fully vaccinated and having previously had COVID-19
3:26AM ( 4 hours ago )
Protests outside, struggles inside: Man U loses to Liverpool
Liverpool has won 4-2 at Manchester United to maintain its hopes of still trying to qualify for the Champions League
3:08AM ( 4 hours ago )
Jost scores twice, Avs clinch No. 1 seed with win over Kings
Tyson Jost scored two of Colorado’s five second-period goals as the Avalanche clinched the West Division and the top overall seed in the NHL playoffs with a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings
2:28AM ( 5 hours ago )
AP Sports
Pennsylvania voters to decide racial equity amendment
Next week, nearly a year since the George Floyd killing, Pennsylvania voters will decide whether to make greater anti-discrimination protections explicit in the state constitution
7:28AM ( 16 minutes ago )
Free offices with a view: 4 lighthouses, courtesy of feds
The federal government is making available for free some waterfront workspaces with killer views
7:20AM ( 23 minutes ago )
N Ireland's main British unionist party to choose new leader
Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party is choosing a new leader, in a contest with two candidates and only 36 voters
7:18AM ( 25 minutes ago )
House GOP set to put Trump defender Stefanik into No. 3 post
Republicans are ready to vault New York Rep. Elise Stefanik into the ranks of the party's House leadership
7:17AM ( 26 minutes ago )
The Latest: Germany's Merkel condemns anti-Israel protests
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman says Germany won’t tolerate anti-Semitic demonstrations especially amid tensions in the Middle East
7:06AM ( 37 minutes ago )