Manchester United’s approach in dealing with Kelechi Iheanacho on Tuesday night was quite fascinating to watch and, truthfully, evidence of the forward’s turnaround in fortune since February.
Whenever the West African chopped infield in his favoured inside-right position outside the area, the concerted effort to surround the in-form Leicester City man was noticeable. There was an obvious plan to not allow the Nigerian a clear sight at goal from distance…and for good reason.
Following his upswing at the King Power Stadium, the former Manchester City man is, on current form, the Foxes’ key man heading into games and is undoubtedly their most potent forward going into Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea.
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Despite failing to add to his 11 Premier League goals at Old Trafford on Tuesday, he played an important tactical role in the away side’s first where he dragged Axel Tuanzebe out of position, allowing Youri Tielemans oceans of space to run into in the build-up to the Luke Thomas’ splendid goal.
He very nearly played a part in what could have been the winner having picked out Jamie Vardy brilliantly on the far-post but Tielemans couldn’t direct the Englishman’s headed assist home, instead colliding with the post. He was subsequently thwarted by David De Gea who made himself big to prevent the Nigerian from scoring his 12th PL goal of the campaign from a fairly tight angle.
Regardless of a rare blank against a weakened Man United side, Leicester couldn’t be prevented from securing their first win at Old Trafford since 1998 and a first league win over the Red Devils since beating them 5-3 in September 2014.
As significant results go, Brendan Rodgers couldn’t have wished for a better scalp before arguably their biggest game of the campaign this Saturday. In truth, though, the real paradigm shift occurred when both sides faced off in the FA Cup last eight in March.
On that day at the King Power, Iheanacho put the Manchester giants to the sword with a brace and an assist in their 3-1 success over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, sending the East Midlands side into their first semi-final for 39 years after five successive quarter-final defeats.
That belief carried the Foxes through their rather turgid last four encounter at the Home of Football vs a disappointing Southampton side. Again, Iheanacho scored the only goal to carry the team to a first final in 52 years, setting up a potentially historic win over last year’s beaten finalists Chelsea.
The Blues may have been defeated by Arsenal post-lockdown last term, but they are seasoned operators in this competition: winning the sport’s oldest cup competition eight times — only Arsenal (14) and Man United (12) have more titles — and ending runners-up six times.
They’ve been to three finals in the last four years, ending on the losing side in 2017 and last year, a fact that probably encourages Rodgers and his troops.
Compare Chelsea’s success in this competition to Leicester’s, who have never won this title and haven’t even experienced a decider since 1969. They’ve had to overcome not one but two hoodoos in their run to this year’s final and they owe it to Iheanacho’s heroics.
The striker evidently has an affinity with the FA Cup, scoring more goals (14) than any other player since debuting in the competition in January 2016.
He’s also surpassed Didier Drogba’s 12-goal haul this year to become the highest-scoring African in the tournament’s history.
Given how the Chelsea legend dominated the latter stages of this competition, especially at Wembley, the 24-year-old will be quietly confident of emulating Drogba against the Ivorian's former club.
Indeed, speaking about Iheanacho in this context still feels unbelievable, owing to how low his stock had fallen at Leicester before the turn of the year.
If anyone had a crystal ball way back in late December and foresaw the Foxes depending on the Nigerian to guide them to success in this competition in May, the shock would have been palpable!
However, this is now arguably the case for the forward who’s been involved in all four Leicester goals since the quarters—scoring three and setting up one.
“I think a lot of people wrote me off, but I never lost faith in myself. I was going through a crazy and difficult time when things just didn't work out for me,” the forward told BBC Africa, reflecting on his struggles. “But I've worked extremely hard, and also have the manager and other staff at Leicester, and most importantly my brother and friend Wilfred [Ndidi] who stood by me.
“It's been a really tough ride, but I'm just delighted it's all come together for me.”
After recent on-pitch setbacks for the club, the Foxes could now end a pleasing week on a high with a maiden FA Cup crown, having also taken a giant step closer to Champions League qualification in the last seven days.
Iheanacho has played a colossal part in their progress and now needs another top performance in his beloved tournament to stun the third most successful side in the competition’s history and send Leicester supporters into unspeakable delirium at the final whistle.