How the smart Brendan Rodgers transformed Kelechi Iheanacho into one of Europe’s in-form strikers

0

After watering down all the standard footballers’ reactions to a post-game television interview, Kelechi Iheanacho dropped his guard. As he turned away from the camera, the Leicester attacker let out a scream of pure, instinctual pleasure.

He had just scored twice to help his side reach the first FA Cup semi-final since 1982, thanks to a 3-1 win over Manchester United – one of Leicester’s most significant achievements since their Premier League title five years ago.

Iheanacho’s double made it seven goals in four games for him as the Nigerian found form at the perfect time to keep the Foxes on track for a top four finish and the first FA Cup in their history.

Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers (center) has changed Kelechi Iheanacho's fate

Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers (center) has changed Kelechi Iheanacho’s fate

“I’ve always said you can see the improvements in him from day to day,” said Foxes manager Brendan Rodgers. ‘I am very happy because he trains so hard.

‘He works well with Jamie Vardy and the combination is really good. He’s got a little bit of everything and he’s become a trump card in many of the games lately.

Kelechi has always contributed. Maybe his confidence was lower [at other times] but he works so hard every day and always comes in and gives his all. You now see his confidence. He’s at the top of his game.

Kelechi is probably best with someone up there. Those two (Iheanacho and Vardy) work really well. ‘

When he landed Wednesday at Nigeria’s base – Eko Hotels and Suites in the posh suburb of Lagos on Victoria Island – for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers, Iheanacho had plenty to please.

Iheanacho initially struggled to secure a starting place, but was in excellent goal form

Suddenly, he’s gone from Vardy’s deputy to one of Europe’s skilled strikers. The challenge when he returns is to keep going. Getting here has not been an easy journey for him, and he will be determined not to waste his golden moment.

Coming to Leicester from Manchester City in 2017, the transfer fee – £ 25 million – put immediate pressure on a player who, despite his impressive goal-scoring record, had started just 12 Premier League games.

Iheanacho had also lost his confidence working a season with Pep Guardiola, who was clear early on that Iheanacho would not play a major role in his long-term plans at City.

Upon arrival in Leicester, Iheanacho found a dressing room bruised by a hard defense of their 2016 Premier League title, in which Vardy, Wes Morgan and Kasper Schmeichel had significant influence.

He had turned down West Ham and Tottenham to move to King Power Stadium, but his first weeks were a tough battle.

The Nigerian has scored seven in his last four games, including two against Manchester United

The Nigerian has scored seven in his last four games, including two against Manchester United

The Nigerian has scored seven in his last four games, including two against Manchester United

Iheanacho rounded out Dean Henderson before converting in the 3-1 FA Cup quarter-final

Iheanacho rounded out Dean Henderson before converting in the 3-1 FA Cup quarter-final

Iheanacho rounded out Dean Henderson before converting in the 3-1 FA Cup quarter-final

While Iheanacho is a hugely popular figure in Leicester, with fellow Nigerian Wilfred Ndidi a very close friend, he is not a particularly brash or outgoing personality.

That made the adjustment a bit trickier – as did an injury 17 minutes after his first appearance, a pre-season friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach.

As is the case with so many players at Leicester, the arrival of Rodgers in February 2019 made all the difference.

At Liverpool and Celtic, Rodgers showed great skill in managing senior players such as Jamie Carragher and Scott Brown.

He showed the same qualities at Leicester. When older men like Vardy, Schmeichel and Morgan are on board with the boss, everything looks brighter, the atmosphere is better and other players can flourish.

Rodgers has now shed the shy side of Iheanacho to turn him into one of Europe's fit strikers

Rodgers has now shed the shy side of Iheanacho to turn him into one of Europe's fit strikers

Rodgers has now shed the shy side of Iheanacho to turn him into one of Europe’s fit strikers

Rodgers never questioned Iheanacho’s ability, but was eager to work on his mindset. For perhaps the first time in his club career, Iheanacho suffers from the pressure to be a regular starter and repays his manager’s confidence in spades.

Indeed, his form was so good that Leicester fans even wondered if the injured duo of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes will automatically regain their place when they get back into shape.

Iheanacho, a client of the mighty agency ICM Stellar, has another year on his contract at the end of this season, but he is expected to sign a new, improved deal with Leicester when the campaign ends.

Before he does, Iheanacho wants a trophy on his mantelpiece. He was part of the City squad that won the League Cup in 2016, but if he could help Leicester win the FA Cup it would feel considerably more special.

Iheanacho has already scored three goals in this season’s league and if he could top that number in the semi-final against Southampton and then a final final, he wouldn’t be the only one screaming for joy.