LONDON — Kelechi Iheanacho‘s time may finally have arrived. The 24-year-old has spent the majority of his career firmly in the shadow of more celebrated forwards. At Manchester City, he was understudy to Sergio Aguero for two years at the height of the Argentine’s powers. Since 2017, he has played a supporting role to the evergreen Vardy, forever a legend for firing Leicester City to the most improbable Premier League title a season earlier.
Yet his form in 2021 has forced manager Brendan Rodgers into altering his system to accommodate a second striker, playing alongside Vardy, and the potency it’s brought Leicester this season was exemplified by his goal that decided Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal against Southampton.
Five minutes short of the hour mark in a game that largely failed to ignite, with both teams perhaps inhibited by a fear of failure, Vardy escaped down the left in customary scampering style, but had the presence of mind to pull the ball back to Iheanacho as he checked his run to wait just outside the six-yard box. His first effort, in truth, was terrible, tame and off-target, yet it struck Southampton defender Jannik Vestergaard and rebounded perfectly into his path. Befitting a career epitomised by perseverance, Iheanacho did not waste the second invitation, slotting a low finish coolly past Fraser Forster for a goal Southampton never truly looked like answering. They did not have a single shot on target in the game.
It is apt Iheanacho should score one of the biggest goals of his career in this competition. No player has scored more than the 14 goals Iheanacho has recorded in the FA Cup since he made his debut in 2015. He is also the highest-scoring African player in the competition’s history — no mean feat when you consider former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba’s affinity with the competition — and takes his tally to 12 in his last 12 matches this season.
Iheanacho can lay claim to two other slices of FA Cup history as well. He was the first player to become a fourth substitute in the 2017 semifinal and, in 2018, his third-round goal against Fleetwood was the first-ever to be awarded in the competition following a VAR review. On Sunday, he fired Leicester to their first FA Cup Final appearance since 1969.
“I think the FA Cup loves me, and I love the FA Cup,” he told BT Sport. “I have been unlucky the past few years but it is working out really well now. I need to keep working hard to go to the next level.
“It is a dream come true. Loving it. I am happy. We did it together to get to the final. I watched the FA Cup when I was little and now I get the chance to play in the final. Such a big dream for me.”
Sunday’s 1-0 game didn’t possess the sense of occasion you expect from a typical FA Cup semifinal at Wembley, but 4,000 fans from the local area were allowed in. The game was a designated test event ahead of the return of supporters in larger numbers next month: 21,000 are planned for the final assuming the pandemic’s course continues as predicted.
Many clubs were represented, with chants connected to Tottenham and Arsenal among those audible throughout, and while it was a delight to see fans populate a stadium in any form, they weren’t treated to much of a spectacle. Southampton were curiously passive as Leicester controlled the game for long periods, eventually conjuring a moment of quality when Vardy turned provider with a smart turn and run.
Yet it’s worth pointing out how the 34-year-old’s touch in front of goal seems to have deserted him in recent weeks. He missed the best chance of the first half, collecting a sublime Youri Tielemans through-ball only to voluntarily make his shooting angle more acute. In the end, he lifted a shot over Forster but wide of the mark.
Vardy has scored just once since Dec. 20. Iheanacho has 12 goals during that span and while Vardy will no doubt feel time remains before passing the baton, his strike partner is taking on central importance.
“Hopefully the FA Cup loves Kelechi a bit more in the final,” said Rodgers. “He’s a great guy, he works so hard, he has at the top of his game in terms of confidence.
“The two of them are a real threat. Jamie is obviously disappointed he didn’t score in the first half. He may not be scoring, but he gives us so much thrust at the top-end of the field.”
Iheanacho sank to his knees at full-time, arms afloat and hands pointing to the sky, before being quickly embraced by Vardy. Chelsea will start the final as strong favourites but they do not possess a striker anywhere close to rivalling Iheanacho’s form.
Iheanacho will be ready. After all, he’s waited long enough.