As Kelechi Iheanacho tucked in a 90th minute winner for Manchester City against Crystal Palace last weekend, Nigerians all over the globe jumped up celebrating. Club rivalry went right out the window and there was a genuine sense of happiness and that maybe, just maybe there is hope for the future of Nigerian football.
Not since 2005 has any talent got Nigerians this excited. Back then, it was John Obi Mikel the nation’s hopes were pinned on. Fresh off the back of an excellent FIFA World Youth Championships in the Netherlands where he was voted the tournament’s second best player – second only to Lionel Messi-, the whole nation was brimming with excitement of finally a player to replace the legend Jay Jay Okocha.
Well ten years on, Nigerians are still looking for Okocha’s replacement. Mikel’s case seems a case of unfulfilled potential but whether his move to Chelsea and a certain Portuguese “football bus driver” subsequently changing his style completely has anything to do with it remains a puzzle.
Now fast forward to today and Nigerians are again starting to believe that another youngster is the go to guy for the country’s success in the near future. But this time, the belief is justified. Make no mistake about it, Iheanacho is a top top talent and unlike Mikel some years back, his club seem to allow him to express himself on the pitch. Iheanacho is a completely different player too. Quick, strong, supremely technical, runs in behind and most importantly, can score goals. He is a player that can play anywhere across the front three. In the 2013 Under-17 World Cup where he won the Golden Ball after scoring six goals for Nigeria, he played more amongst the three behind the striker, from the right, left or just in behind. He seemed to have that presence of mind that all great players have of going to where they can be most dangerous and attacking from there.
Manchester City signed him from from Taye Academy in Owerri for about £350,000 in 2014 and since then, it seems the coaches have recognized his talent and seriously worked on him. He’s been bulked up substantially to aid cope with the demands of English football. Also, I think the work on his body has a lot with the coaching team at City seeing him as one to play up top in the Sergio Aguero mode. For the youth teams, he’s played mostly as a number 9. He never looked like an out and out striker to me anyways but that would become clearer in the years to come. Manu Garba, who was the coach of the Nigeria U17 team where Iheanacho first shone also sees him a bit deeper. He compares Iheanacho to Chelsea and England legend Frank Lampard.
“I’m not surprised at his performances for Manchester City. As I have said it before, he can play for any team in the world,” he told SL10.
“As a matter of fact they will do well to use him as a replacement for Frank Lampard. He shares similar style of play with the outgoing legend. They can both create and score goals from midfield with late runs into the 18-yard box hardly spotted by opposition defenders.”
There were certainly shades of Lampard in Iheanacho’s injury time winner at Selhurst Park. He was on the front foot anticipating the parry from the goalkeeper and was right on cue to stab the ball in. Such qualities get Nigerians to dream. There have been calls to draft him already into the senior squad and I can understand why. Watching Nigeria’s last international games and you could clearly see that the nation needs a spark. Someone who can make things happen in the final third. Iheanacho can be that man.
But Nigerians must be careful. Exceedingly high expectations more often than not end in huge disappointment and the Oliseh and his team have to step in here and bed him gradually into the fold. Pinning the hopes of 170 million people on the shoulders of an 18 year old boy will be all too much and for now the likes of Ahmed Musa and co need to ease the pressure on the boy. As we have seen with even Lionel Messi, having the hopes of your nation on you can be a barrier so Nigerians must make sure they do not put excess pressure on the boy.
Pellegrini said after the game that having Iheanacho in the squad was the reason he opted against signing another striker. With Aguero having a few injury problems as always, the young Nigerian may yet get more playing time in the coming weeks. Him not being in the Champions League squad means he’ll get most of his chances coming off the bench in the league and in a few league cup games. He needs to stay calm and take them.
Nigerians would be hoping that this is not another false down. With Mikel, there was a lot of fanfare and optimism that never really yielded any significant results but with Iheanacho, the evidence suggests that Nigerians might finally have a world class talent to call their own.
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