The youngster scored a fine hat-trick in the FA Cup fourth round last season but is getting fewer and fewer chances to show what he can do
Almost exactly a year ago Kelechi Iheanacho stood in the interview area at Villa Park after scoring an FA Cup hat-trick which, it was hoped, would catapult him into the Manchester City limelight.
The quiet Nigerian says little at the best of times and on the day of his finest moment as a professional he batted away questions about his rise with an incredible humility that, while admirable, did not make for great newspaper copy. It had been let on, in an attempt to provoke some excitement, that the City squad greeted Iheanacho in the dressing room by dancing around and singing his name.
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That ploy did not work either and in a desperate bid to coax something interesting out of the nervous youngster, one enterprising reporter dragged up an old picture, taken at an international youth tournament, which showed him looking skinny and rangy. It was pointed out that a lot had changed in a short space of time, both in terms of his stature and his career prospects.
Iheanacho, far from shocked at routine physical changes to the human body during adolescence, thanked hard work for his development and went on his way.
Just showed Kelechi the pic of him from a few years ago. He smiled at the difference, praised hard work #mcfc pic.twitter.com/72ctVpz4ro
— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) January 30, 2016
Now, a year down the line, a lot has changed again.
City fans had known they have a real talent on their hands for a couple of years by the time he scored that hat-trick, but the boy from Imo had gone under the radar of the wider audience. Now, 12 trying months on, he’s in danger of falling off Pep Guardiola’s, too.
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Whereas he would generally get his opportunities in the absence of Sergio Aguero under Manuel Pellegrini last season, Iheanacho has found it hard to get a look-in for Guardiola recently, even when Aguero is out of the picture.
Iheanacho weighed in with two goals in two games when the Argentine served his first suspension of the season in September, including a strike at Old Trafford, but hardly got a sniff over Christmas.
With the main man banned for four games, Iheanacho started in the dire performance at Leicester City but was barely used again until Hull City on Boxing Day, when he came off the bench and showed that knack for being in the right place at the right time to score City’s second.
Even if he has found it difficult to get on the pitch for much of the season, he had at least always been on the bench. That changed last weekend when Gabriel Jesus was thrown straight into the squad against Tottenham, at Iheanacho’s expense.
Guardiola has spent half his time at City urging Aguero to play “much, much better”, to do a lot more outside the area, so it is only natural Iheanacho, still just 20 and essentially a penalty-box striker, is not yet up to the boss’ high standards.
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His poacher’s instinct, which has earned him the best goals-per-minute ratio in Premier League history no less, may not be enough.
And with Jesus now on the scene there will surely be fewer opportunities for him to prove his worth.
There is a recognition at City that Jesus, similar to Iheanacho, does his best work inside the penalty area, and that he must be given time to improve his link-up play. But the Brazilian is possessed of a work ethic and fighter’s instinct which is hoped will give Aguero the proverbial kick up the back-side, and his all-round game, while still in need of fine-tuning, is better than Iheanacho’s.
Gabriel Jesus vs Iheanacho and Sagna
His work-rate is pic.twitter.com/qqT4YraBmG
— MCFC Stuff (@MCFCStuff_BR) January 19, 2017
Guardiola says all three of his strikers “sense” goals, that they all have the scoring knack, but he put in a decisive phone call to Jesus last summer because he believes he can help the 19-year-old develop into an all-rounder. There is some doubt whether he can do the same with Aguero, and maybe, on the evidence of the past few months, Iheanacho.
The Nigerian’s father ruled out the possibility of a loan move earlier this week but Guardiola, speaking on Friday, gave the impression he was finding it hard to fit all his strikers into the team.
“Of course we evaluate how they do in the games and the training sessions,” the Catalan said when asked about keeping the likes of Iheanacho and Nolito happy. “At the end I try to be fair based on what I have seen in their performances.
“Of course I have to evaluate it based on what I see on the grass.”
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An FA Cup fourth round tie against a team set to make wholesale changes would normally present an ideal opportunity to showcase burgeoning talent, but Iheanacho looks set to miss out when City face Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Instead, it will most likely be Gabriel Jesus who gets the chance to show off his talents as he tries to make his own way at City.
It should not be forgotten that Iheanacho himself is just 20 years old and it would be a great shame to see his talent, which has come to be underestimated by some in recent months, go to waste. The idea of a loan move seems a knee-jerk reaction but, should he struggle for opportunities in the coming months, a move away would allow him to continue his development into a fine player.
Having seemingly made a major breakthrough one year ago, he now appears no better off for it. Who knows where he could be this time next year.