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Iheanacho: Leicester stay represents missed opportunity

2:51 PM GMT 04/09/2019
Kelechi Iheanacho
The Nigeria international will spend yet another season deputizing at the King Power Stadium, an unpalatable fate for a player of his talent

Rachid Ghezzal, Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slimani. All forwards who, in the just-concluded transfer window, have traded inactivity at Leicester City for a chance at regular football.

In the case of Slimani, he has looked and played like a man eager to make up for lost time since moving to AS Monaco in Ligue 1. Signed following the Foxes’ improbable title triumph in 2016, the Algeria international has found playing time difficult to come by, unable to either form an effective partnership with, or displace Jamie Vardy.

The decision to move to France has him once again looking like the forward Leicester paid close to £30 million to acquire from Sporting CP: three goals in his opening two matches reminding many of his obvious merits.

Ghezzal has joined the Rocco Commisso revolution at Fiorentina, and will look to form a wing tandem with star signing Franck Ribery, and while Okazaki’s move to Malaga ended sadly as his contract was rescinded, it was easy enough for them to read the writing – nay, the lurid graffiti – boldly sprayed on the wall at Belvoir Drive.

Why, then, has Kelechi Iheanacho not done likewise?

The 22-year-old has been on Leicester’s books since 2017, but has run up against the same barrier that others have: with Vardy’s pace and finishing efficiency so central to how the club plays – and this being a reality that has persisted regardless of the identity of the manager in the dugout – and his physical condition almost perpetually excellent, it is nigh-on impossible to get ahead of him.

However, compared to Slimani and Ghezzal, Iheanacho has actually had greater opportunity to put himself forward, even if only to force a tactical re-shaping of the side.

Last season, the former Manchester City forward made 30 appearances in the Premier League for the Foxes. Granted, only nine were starts, but of the 21 substitute appearances, a further 10 saw him feature for 20 minutes or more.

There have also been potentially decisive moments, most notably in matches against the two Manchester clubs in the second half of the season.

Against Manchester City, who ended up winning the Premier League by a solitary point, he spurned a gilt-edged chance to essentially decide the destination of the title on the penultimate matchday of the season, skewing a one-on-one with an unprotected Ederson Moraes well wide. It marked a low point for Iheanacho, as he suffered disgusting racial abuse online in the aftermath of that miss.

He was cut from Nigeria’s squad earlier in the year, and missed out on the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer. The consensus, however, was that his exclusion was deserved: the jocular nature of the 2013 FIFA Under-17 World Cup Golden Boot winner, in particular his occasionally wacky, comedic antics on social media, has understandably led many to speculate as to his appetite for success at the top level.

In 2018, he treated rapper CDQ to a £15,000 shopping spree in Manchester, fuelling concerns he no longer had his head in the game, and while there is no law against hospitality, there was an immodest quality to the public nature of the gesture.

Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr stoked the fires even more, calling the player’s professionalism and focus into question.

“It's not good all the time to be funny,” Rohr said of Iheanacho in March. “You must show that you are serious, working every day in the training session and show that you are to come back in the team, at the club and also with us.”

That seemed to provide a kick up the backside for the forward, who through the summer toned down his use of social media and seemed to adopt a more serious mien. The result was a number of encouraging performances in preseason: he scored against Cambridge United and Rotherham United, sparking hope of a revival, and cut a leaner, quieter figure.

“I am delighted, I am happy getting two goals,” he said following his brace against Rotherham. “Hopefully, I can take that into the season. I think it’s important for my confidence. It has been a long time coming but I am happy again. I think I can take it fully into the season.”

Rohr himself was sufficiently impressed, declaring in the summer, “Iheanacho has changed, he's now much more quiet.”

Perhaps that change in demeanour was all the German needed to see, as he extended a recall to Iheanacho for this month’s friendly against Ukraine in Dnipro.

However, so far this term, he is yet to play a single minute, and even when Leicester wrapped up victory at the weekend in comfortable fashion against visiting Bournemouth, there was no token cameo for Iheanacho: he had been left out of the matchday squad altogether.

The timing of his recall then is problematic, as in the past Rohr has cited the player’s inactivity as a concern. However, an even bigger problem is Iheanacho’s apparent unwillingness to push for a departure.

Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers has made vague noises about him being the most natural back-up to Vardy, but the acquisition of Ayoze Perez in the summer ought to have set off alarm bells: the Spaniard is an attacking dogsbody, capable of playing across the frontline, and it was he who was sat on the bench for the visit of the Cherries.

There is still undoubtedly talent there, and Slimani’s new lease of life in Monaco proves that, sometimes, a change of scenery is just what is needed. In a market where attacking talent attracts a premium, a player with his profile in a cut-price deal would doubtless be an attractive proposition.

He could do so much better than wait around for a 32-year-old whose powers show no sign of waning. Sticking around just seems like a missed opportunity.