Football Features

“He loves the FA Cup and the FA Cup loves him” – Kelechi Iheanacho fires Leicester to first FA Cup final for over 50 years

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 21:07, 18 April 2021 | Updated: 19:24, 10 September 2021

In a tense night of football, Leicester beat Southampton 1-0 in the FA Cup semi-final.

The win takes the Foxes back to Wembley for the first time since 1969 with the chance to claim their first-ever FA Cup in their 137 year history. And the main man behind the glory was Kelechi Iheanacho.

When Kelechi Iheanacho signed for Leicester in 2017, it was to little fanfare. This once-hyped prospect had failed to make good on his potential at Manchester City, so there wasn’t much hope he would do it at the King Power.

And sure enough, for three and a half years Iheanacho was a functional back-up for Jamie Vardy but little more. However in 2021, with Jamie Vardy out injured, Iheanacho got a run in the first team for the Foxes and suffice to say he’s grabbed his chance with both hands.

At the start of February, Iheanacho had just three goals in the Europa League group stage to his name all season. Since the start of February he has scored 12 goals in 11 games across all competitions. That’s not a typo, he really has been that prolific, that much of a talisman.

And he’s done it all while representing not only Nigeria, but Igbo speakers too. The dots on his shirt, under the “I” and the “O” in his name are punctuation similar to accents found in Spanish and French names. “For me it is a way to express where I come from and for people to know I have this tradition and tribe back home,” he said. “In the village if they are able to watch the game and see it, they will be proud.”

His village will have cause to be immensely proud of him. As if you measure Iheanacho’s goalscoring from the start of March his record is even better. Then you lose the Europa League defeat to Slavia Prague (of which he played just 26 minutes and you feel that if he weren’t suspended for the second leg, Leicester might have found a way to win) and narrow it down to a frankly ridiculous 10 goals in seven games, including a hat-trick against Sheffield United winning goal today against Southampton.

The Foxes were the better side tonight against the Saints. They played the better football and carried the greater threat, albeit it was a somewhat subdued display as both sides were anxious to not blow their chance of a historic FA Cup final (where they will face Chelsea).

The breakthrough came just short of the hour when Jamie Vardy spun away from his marker down the left. With Iheanacho as the side’s no. 9, Vardy has been free to run the channels a bit more and try to exploit space in a creative capacity. He did just that when he left Jan Bednarek for dead, tore down the left and then found Iheanacho in the middle.

The Nigerian’s first shot was deflected off Jannik Vestergaard but it bounced back to Iheanacho and he made no mistake the second-time, calmly slotting in his 15th goal of the season to take Leicester to their first FA Cup final since 1969.

“We did it together, the team. Without the team we couldn’t do it,” Iheanacho said post-match, emphasising Leicester’s team spirit. “It’s not a one-man show, but I’m happy the way we played together.” And it’s true that Leicester’s system has improved, but that owes so much to Iheanacho and his goalscoring ability ensuring the team has bite, and it’s that bite that has carried them to the FA Cup final.

Iheanacho scored the winning goal in the fifth round against Brighton, two goals in the 3-1 quarter-final victory over Manchester United and then tonight’s winner as well. That takes him onto four goals in total which means he is now joint-top scorer in the competition with Tammy Abraham, Gary Madine and Alfie May. Moreover unlike those men (yes, even Abraham) he will have a chance to be top scorer outright when he leads the line for Leicester at Wembley. He has been the decisive force as Leicester seek their first-ever FA Cup win.

Speaking post-match, Robbie Savage echoed Iheanacho’s own words by saying of the striker: “he loves the FA Cup and the FA Cup loves him.” The Nigerian’s manager Brendan Rodgers added: “he’s at the top of the game in terms of confidence, he always feels he can score.”

Looking at the way Iheanacho has been playing in the FA Cup so far, could you really argue with either statement?