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Europa Conference League: Will Leicester City manager Rodgers lean on Iheanacho in Rome?

3:06 PM EDT 5/4/22
Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City and Nigeria.
The Foxes face their biggest game of the season against Jose Mourinho’s Roma on Thursday

It was interesting to listen to Brendan Rodgers and Kelechi Iheanacho’s post-match reactions after Leicester City’s 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

The Northern Irishman’s assessment of the frontman’s performance was not analogous to the Super Eagle’s evaluation, but both statements, by and large, summed up the former Manchester City striker.

He scored a brilliantly taken goal but was guilty of losing possession at times. He scored a low-percentage effort but his decision-making and execution in other situations could be questioned.

Evaluating someone who is often a mixed bag throughout 90 minutes can be a fool’s errand, yet Rodgers’ remarks after the defeat were somewhat fitting.

“It was a very good strike and a very good goal,” Rodgers told the club’s official website after the game. “He caused them a problem. He lost one or two balls which he can be better with, but overall, he kept fighting and running. It was a very, very good goal.”

Receiving the ball from Youri Tielemans in his favoured position in the right half-space, the Super Eagle, Iheanacho chopped infield, shifting the ball into a shooting position having deceived Harry Winks before sending a low drive beyond Hugo Lloris.

“I had a shot in the first half and, in the second half, I took the ball quite well, I shifted it and saw the space and put it there,” the forward concisely put post-game.

Indeed, that strike was reminiscent of a few goals in a prolific 2020/21 in which the Nigerian ended the campaign as Leicester’s top marksman, ending Jamie Vardy’s streak in that regard.

Those moments of brilliance have been few and far between this term, with ‘Seniorman’ netting only four Premier League goals this season, significantly fewer than the 12 he managed in the preceding campaign.

The obvious vindicating factor for Iheanacho, apart from not being Rodgers’ go-to man, has been the reversion to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, moving away from a two-man frontline in which Iheanacho thrived in the second half of the previous campaign.

Having said that, was Sunday’s selection and formation giving strong hints to the Leicester boss’ thinking for Thursday’s decisive Europa Conference League encounter with Roma?

While the Foxes’ trainer may have had the reverse fixture with Jose Mourinho’s side in mind with his heavily rotated XI — with slight injuries to James Maddison and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall causing the pair’s absence — Rodgers’ reversion to a back three with two up top favoured the frontman.

Admittedly, the rationale behind that alteration could have been to match Antonio Conte’s men and it remains to be seen if the Leicester trainer retains the formation to duplicate Jose Mourinho’s approach or utilise a number nine with two wide attackers either side at the Stadio Olimpico.

Either way, a case can be made for Iheanacho to start in Rome.

Vardy remains the club’s talisman but the logic in opting for an unfit striker to carry the burden alone may have repercussions for the East Midlands side in their first European semi-final. The Englishman has only just returned from a knee injury that kept him out for over a month, getting 102 minutes in his legs since a cameo against Aston Villa.

A hamstring injury sustained at the start of 2022, which kept him on the sidelines for a month, means the 35-year-old has featured only five times in the New Year. Indeed, making an out of shape frontman carry the goalscoring responsibility constitutes a risk.

Of course, Patson Daka remains an alternative for Rodgers, but the Zambian has looked out of sorts during this ongoing 13-game drought and notably lacked conviction as his scuffed shot at Spurs struck the post.

Seven of the aforementioned games have been starts, too, yet the fact he was shot-shy in seven of those 13 games does not bode well for the 23-year-old.

Admittedly, Iheanacho has not pulled up trees but he is arguably the logical choice to start in attack alone or alongside a partner if Rodgers plumps for a front two as the Foxes chase a first European final in the club’s history.

“We need the same character that we’ve shown to get to this stage,” the manager said before Thursday’s game. “We’ve got experience going into the second leg knowing how to get the job done.

“Rennes and PSV were difficult games, two really good sides, and we were able to do that. It’s a similar mentality and a similar thought process.”

Having labelled their Rome mission the biggest game of their season, Rodgers now needs to trust the flawed but decisive Iheanacho at a voluble Olimpico to lead Leicester to an unprecedented final.