Football

Iheanacho: Leicester forward is the Champions League joker Rodgers needed

The Nigerian netted his first hat-trick in the Premier League on Sunday, and his form bodes well for the Foxes looking to end in the top four

When Kelechi Iheanacho received a pass from Wilfred Ndidi in the inside right channel, there seemed to be an odd reluctance to close him down.

Perhaps a consequence of already being deflated at the time (Leicester City were 3-0 up before the 78th-minute effort), Sheffield United surprisingly stood off the in-form Nigerian who punished that hesitation with a powerful low strike beyond an outstretched Aaron Ramsdale for his first Premier League hat-trick.

He’s now netted in three league games on the trot for the first time in his career, taking his tally in the competition to six, surpassing last year’s return of five and only two behind his best haul in 2015/16 (eight).

For context, the West African is six behind Jamie Vardy PL tally and the timely nature of the former Manchester City forward’s run is exactly what the doctor ordered for Brendan Rodgers given the little return of his main striker in front of goal.

The ex-England international has netted only once in 15 games in 2021, a dearth of goals that has coincided with injuries to key players for the Foxes.

Given the absences of key attackers James Maddison and Harvey Barnes, with the former not expected to return anytime soon, as well as stand-by Cengiz Under, Vardy’s run of one goal in 12 league matches was going to threaten Leicester’s chances of ending in the top four.

Ostensibly, it seems Rodgers has stumbled on the recent partnership largely due to the lack of attacking personnel at the King Power Stadium, rather than by design.

Iheanacho has been a beneficiary of the switch, coming on trumps in what many felt could see the East Midlands side throw away a top four spot in a similar fashion to how last year panned out.

The Foxes had dropped points in four of their seven games before the Nigerian’s form kicked off, and even that 1-1 draw at Burnley meant the 2016 champions had secured only three wins in eight fixtures. That period occurred simultaneously with their Europa League exit, leading to fears 2020/21 could peter out just as last year did.

With a resurgent Chelsea, plucky West Ham United and inconsistent Liverpool all chasing, picking up maximum points in the last two games has put some daylight between Rodgers’ troops and the sides threatening to supplant them in the final nine games.

Brendan Rodgers Leicester City

Owing to a testing run of games in the final stretch against champions-elect Man City, West Ham, Manchester United, the Blues and Tottenham Hotspur, the current five-point advantage over Thomas Tuchel’s side, eight and 10 respectively over the Hammers and Jurgen Klopp’s team gives them a little leeway.

Iheanacho’s productivity in a two-man attack has contributed to the healthy lead they hold on those sides and is a stark change to the mood around December when an unimpressive showing at Crystal Palace convinced many to believe he couldn’t fill in for Vardy, who had to be introduced at Selhurst Park on December 28.

Perhaps, that was the problem.

Initially expected to be a Sergio Aguero replacement in Manchester, the former teenage prodigy was then pigeonholed as the Englishman’s understudy.

As a result, he was seldom played consistently in tandem with either for a consistent period and given a chance to thrive in a role he prospered in as a youngster.

Kelechi Iheanacho and Raheem Sterling celebrate Manchester City goal

Rodgers was delighted with the 24-year-old, who’s been involved in 51 goals (37 goals, 14 assists) in 76 starts in all competitions for City and Leicester combined since his move to England, lauding his impact against the Blades.

“[Iheanacho] was outstanding, not just in his goals, but his overall work-rate,” Rodgers told the club website after the 5-0 win. “He had a big responsibility today, in terms of dropping into space, finding that pocket that was just on the back of the midfield, and I thought he did that very, very well.

“He’s a great guy. He deserved the three goals. He had one or two other opportunities, but we’re all delighted for him.”

Iheanacho sweetly and thoughtfully dedicated Sunday’s success to mothers and thanked his teammates and especially his manager for the recent run in front of goal. Now, Rodgers will hope the in-form Nigerian helps the side over the line as they aim to play among Europe’s hallowed sides for only the second time in their history.

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