LONDON – Kelechi IheanachoMaybe the time has finally come. The 24-year-old has spent most of his career under the shadow of celebrated strikers. At the Manchester city, he was understudy too Sergio Aguero for two years at the height of the Argentine powers. Since 2017 he has played a supporting role for the evergreen Vardy, who is forever a legend in shooting Leicester City the most unlikely Premier League title a season earlier.
However, his form in 2021 forced coach Brendan Rodgers to change his system to include a second striker who plays alongside Vardy. The strength Leicester has brought this season was illustrated by its goal, which was decided in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final Southampton.
Five minutes to the hour in a game that largely failed to ignite, with both teams possibly hampered by fear of failure, Vardy escaped to the left in the usual way but had the mental presence to get the ball back after Pulling Iheanacho as he checked his run to wait just outside the six yard box. His first attempt was terrible, tame and off-target in truth, but hit the Southampton defender Jannik Vestergaard and rebounded perfectly into its path. In keeping with a career marked by perseverance, Iheanacho didn’t waste the second invite, coolly putting a low finish behind him Fraser Forster For a goal, Southampton never really looked like an answer. They didn’t have a single shot at the target in the game.
It is fitting that Iheanacho should achieve one of the greatest goals of his career in this competition. No player has scored more than the 14 goals Iheanacho has scored since making his FA Cup debut in 2015. He’s also the highest scoring African player in the history of the competition – not an easy task considering the previous one Chelsea Striker Didier Drogba’s affinity for the competition – and counts to 12 in his last 12 games this season.
Iheanacho can claim two other parts of FA Cup history as well. He became the first player to come on for a fourth time in the 2017 semi-finals, and in 2018 his third-round goal against Fleetwood was the first to be awarded in the competition after a VAR review. On Sunday he sacked Leicester for the first time since 1969 in the FA Cup final.
“I think the FA Cup loves me and I love the FA Cup,” he told BT Sport. “I’ve been unlucky for the past few years, but it’s working really well now. I have to keep working hard to get to the next level.
“It’s a dream come true. I love it. I’m happy. We did it together to get to the final. I saw the FA Cup when I was little and now I have the chance to go to the final play. Such a big dream. ” to me.”
Sunday’s 1-0 game didn’t have the occasion you’d expect from a typical FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, but it did allow 4,000 local fans. The game was a designated test event before fans returned on a larger scale. Numbers for next month: 21,000 are slated for the finale, assuming the pandemic continues as predicted.
Many clubs were represented, with chants associated with Tottenham and arsenal among those that were consistently audible, and while it was a joy to see fans populating a stadium in some form or another, they were not treated with a grand spectacle. Southampton was oddly passive as Leicester controlled the game for long periods of time and eventually conjured up a moment of quality when Vardy turned to provider with a smart twist.
However, it’s worth noting how the 34-year-old’s touch in front of goal seems to have left him in recent weeks. He missed the best chance of the first half and collected a sublime Youri Tielemans Through-ball only to voluntarily sharpen the angle of his shot. In the end, he raised a shot over Forster, but far past the target.
Vardy has only met once since December 20th. Iheanacho has scored 12 goals in that time, and while Vardy undoubtedly feels that there is still time before he hands over the baton, his strike partner gains a pivotal role.
“Hopefully the FA Cup loves Kelechi a little more in the final,” Rodgers said. “He’s a great guy, he works so hard that he is at the top of his game in terms of confidence.
“The two are a real threat. Jamie is obviously disappointed that he didn’t score in the first half. He might not score, but he gives us so much boost at the top of the field.”
Iheanacho sank to his knees all day, arms afloat and hands raised to the sky, before he was quickly hugged by Vardy. Chelsea will start the final as strong favorites but they don’t have a striker who comes close to Iheanacho’s form.
Iheanacho will be ready. After all, he waited long enough.