Iheanacho 2020-21: A new pinnacle for Nigeria strikers in England?

The Nigeria international’s goals have powered Leicester City’s top four challenge, and he is quietly on the cusp of a legacy-defining season

Ahead of their Thursday meeting with Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion manager Sam Allardyce was under no illusions as to what the key to coming away from the King Power Stadium was.

“[Kelechi] Iheanacho and [Jamie] Vardy are probably two of the most dangerous forwards in the Premier League,” he said. “Part of our task is to try and keep them from scoring a goal and making sure we give ourselves a chance of winning the game. That will be a key area for our defence to try and look after those two.”

It is one thing to know what’s coming, of course, and quite another to fend it off.

Leicester set about putting the visiting Baggies to the sword from the off, and by half-time, Allardyce’s side was 3-0 down. Fittingly, that fearsome tandem had struck again: Vardy to end an uncharacteristic drought, and Iheanacho to stretch his run of goals to 11 in eight matches.

The Nigerian’s strike, which trebled the lead and realistically took the game out of the reach of the overmatched visitors, may have been the legacy of extremely permissive defending, but it was nevertheless executed with the sangfroid of a man for whom scoring has now become second nature.

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Dread it, run from it, Iheanacho arrives (in the box) just the same. It matters little how he’s performing generally – and his overall output wasn’t of the highest quality on the night – or how much forewarning the opponent has. He just seems in a state of grace just now.

Jamie Vardy, Kelechi Iheanacho – Leicester City

This latest strike took him up to 16 goals in all competitions for the season, a tally that places him in exalted company as far as Nigerians in English football go.

Only Odion Ighalo (18 in 2015/16) and Yakubu Aiyegbeni (21 in 2007/08, 18 in 2011/12) have managed more on English shores in all competitions.

That immediately takes what has been, to date, a redemptive season into legacy-defining territory, especially considering how much remains in the offing still for the Foxes this season.

Brendan Rodgers’ side find themselves on the cusp of trophy success in the FA Cup, and have kept alive their bid for a top four finish despite the setback against West Ham a fortnight ago.

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Both these historic opportunities owe directly to Iheanacho’s efficiency in front of goal. His goal against Southampton at Wembley last weekend decided a nervy semi-final during which, despite being clearly the better side, Leicester struggled to make the game safe; while in league play he has scored in five of the last six.

Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester

This latter contribution has been particularly pertinent in light of Vardy’s goalscoring struggles, and for all the talk of them being a tandem, there can be no denying the 24-year-old has been the big wheel during the run-in.

“There is no doubt Kelechi is scoring and looks like he can score every game,” Rodgers told the BBC following the dismissal of the Baggies.

If Leicester are to meet both their objectives – and Chelsea are a fearsome proposition, on both fronts – they will bank on him doing precisely that.

Should he – and they – pull it off, then the case for Iheanacho having had the best season ever of a Nigerian striker in England becomes almost unimpeachable.

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Yakubu Aiyegbeni

Mind, neither Ighalo nor Yakubu led their sides to trophy success during their prolific campaigns, and while the likes of Kanu Nwankwo and John Utaka did, they lacked the sheer volume of goals that Iheanacho is accruing.

There is an added wrinkle: consider that, at January 31, Iheanacho had only scored three (all in the Europa League), and that his total so far has come having played just over 1,700 minutes, measly compared to Ighalo (total achieved in over 3,000 minutes) and Aiyegbeni (over 3,000 and 2,500 minutes respectively), and the output of the 24-year-old looks even more impressive.

Not bad for a player who, in the eyes of many, was for so long held back by his playful antics and happy-go-luck persona off the pitch; to be so brusquely efficient in front of goal paints a very different picture.

Trophy success and a place among Europe’s elite next term would crown what has been a quite dreamy season, complete with the sort of gratifying emotional arc that football can sometimes serve up.

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