The great hope of Nigerian football announced himself to the world with a decisive winner for pacesetters Manchester City at Selhurst Park
COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
For the Nigerian football fan, Iheanacho’s announcement to the Premier League has been the object of frenzied expectation. The Citizens do not command a huge following in Africa’s most-populous nation, and as such their games do not attract the level of viewership the other members of the Big Four can boast of.
However, the moment it was announced Iheanacho would not be going out on loan – a fate widely predicted – but would spend the season at the Etihad, this was always going to change. Waiting on his appearances assumed the anguish of a full bladder and the accompanying certainty that, in leaving to relieve yourself, something of great importance would be missed.
Ostensibly City’s third-choice striker, the chances would undoubtedly be few; Manuel Pellegrini would offer him cameos, fleeting windows of opportunity within which to showcase his strengths.
Iheanacho | One small touch, one massive goal...His debut came in the opening day thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, and spanned all of three minutes. With the scoreline at 4-0 and the game winding down, there was little scope for decisive impact. However, it made clear that the little Nigerian’s moments of quality this term would only be vignettes, rather than feature-length.
His move to Manchester on the back of a delightful U-17 World Cup in 2013 was the final act in a protracted drama, complete with purported physical assault, confusion over representation, and concerns over which team would best utilize his talents. For it has never been in doubt that he had ability: six goals and seven assists is as blatant an assertion of dominance as you will find in a major tournament.
If anything, as is deducible from these numbers, the uncertainty stemmed from what his best role might be. While he played a narrow left-sided role, stepping in off the wide areas into the zone between the lines at U-17 level – the sort of wide playmaker role David Silva fulfils when City play 4-4-2 – it was decided he would be converted into a central striker.
To his credit, his adaptation to the role has been seamless.
Kelechi Iheanacho's heat map for Manchester City vs. Crystal Palace - simplicity is everything!It really is no surprise: he was always a wonderfully composed finisher, and at just over 6ft, is not a soft touch. Versatility can be a problem for young players, as they are often played in varying positions simply for the benefit of game time. His anchoring at centre-forward at such an early stage allows him to develop the unique tools for the position; already, he has added bulk to his wiry frame, and is learning to occupy centre-backs and make better movements off the ball.
His winning goal, a quick pounce after a parried shot from Palace goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, would prove the ultimate vindication for Pellegrini. The Chilean let the influential Edin Dzeko leave to Roma, while the unfortunate Stevan Jovetic rocked up with former City manager Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan. His decision to resist calls for another forward was a nudge in Iheanacho’s direction and, just five weeks in, he has won his first three points for his side.
Most remarkably, he is yet to complete ten competitive minutes in a City shirt. That will be rectified sooner rather than later.
Will Iheanacho's effort against Palace ensure that he is given a greater opportunity over the coming weeks?Trust has a wonderfully mitotic ability, and it must have been great from the manager’s point of view to hear the excited 18-year-old beam, “I said to myself, ‘if I go in, I will do what he [Pellegrini] asked me.’”
He may be third in the pecking order, but with Sergio Aguero offering a reminder of his own persistently fragile mortality – taken off with injury – there will be many more chances for Kelechi to show how much of the manager’s grizzled wisdom he has taken on.
From now on, Nigerians will be watching...