Iheanacho: Can he make the grade at Man City?
Kelechi Iheanacho, the best player at last year's U-17 World Cup, seemed destined for greatness after scoring a goal for English champions Manchester City on Thursday, writes 'TANA AIYEJINA
Spotting the number 72 jersey, Nigeria's Kelechi Iheanacho was the undisputed star of Manchester City as the English champions defeated Sporting Kansas City 4-1 on Thursday.
There was no doubt who the best player on the day was. With few familiar faces like Micah Richards, Dedryck Boyata, Jesus Navas, Javi Garcia and Aleksandar Kolarov in the starting line-up, the young Nigerian made most of the occasion and ended up with a goal to his name, scored in the 89th minute.
It could have been two for the Nigerian striker but a fingertip save from goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum denied him a brace, before he was substituted by Belgian centre-half Jason Denayer, in added time.
Close followers of the player have been skeptical of his chances of getting regular playing time at the star-studded English champions but it seems City have great hopes for the young playmaker.
Iheanacho alongside his Eaglets teammate, Chidiebere Nwakali, was part of manager Manuel Pellegrini's squad for the trip to Scotland for games against Dundee and Hearts.
The Chilean again invited him into his 23-man squad for the tour of the United States and the youngster repaid his manager's trust back, capping an outstanding performance with a goal— City's fourth of the match— to Pellegrini's delight.
Seeing him regularly in City's first team might not be realisable early enough as City are looking into whether they can secure a work permit for him, but they may have to loan him out to a club overseas until he is eligible to play in England.
Iheanacho's outstanding performance on Thursday earned the emerging star praises from Pellegrini but the manager is unsure if City would be able to keep him in England.
He told Daily Mail , “Kelechi is just 17 years old and he's a very important player for us in the future. He demonstrated today (Thursday) what he can do in the future. It depends on the way he takes this profession, but I think he's a good talent.
“We've not decided yet (what the plan is for him) because it's not easy. He's just 17 and sometimes that's the problem. We'll see what he will do in the future. For the moment he will stay with us and we'll see when we return to England what will happen with him. But he's a very important player for the future for the club.
“After the tour we will see what happens with him. There are a lot of things to arrange to play in England but he has an important future.”
Iheanacho caught the eye of wealthy Man City after his dazzling displays at last year's FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, scoring six goals in seven games, and setting up a further seven en route to a record fourth title for Nigeria.
The playmaker and deadly finisher all rolled into one, was the star of the tournament, winning the Golden Ball award for the best player and also finishing as second top scorer of the cadet competition.
Thus City had to beat off a host of European clubs for the services of Iheanacho after the competition.
Even if the work permit issue is sorted out by the big-spending City, the big question is whether Iheanacho would be able to command a place in the Premier League club.
Former Super Eagles defender, Taribo West, believes Iheanacho has the quality to earn a first team place but advised him to bide his time.
“He should be patient. It's not easy going to Europe and hitting it big time but our people expect you to become a star overnight. It takes about two years for Europeans to nurture you to their taste because their football is totally different from ours. From there, he can graduate to the first team if he works had,” the former AC Milan centre-back said.
“If the manager of the first team likes him, he will play regularly. He can sign an apprentice contract if he is doing very well in the junior team and better than the other players. That will enable him to play at senior level.”
The 1996 Olympic Games gold medalist expressed happiness at the progress of the highly-talented player, saying it was a sign of good things to come for the country's football.
“With his likes, we can have a great team who would truly represent us at the World Cup. It's nice the way things are going for him because it is a sign that Nigerian football has a bright future. If he can score for a big club like City, then we should expect bigger things from the player,” Taribo added.
Former Kano Pillars player Razak Ekpoki described Iheanacho as Portuguese legend Rui Costa and Santiago Solari rolled into one.
“I have been waiting to learn new development about the youngster and it was a trademark goal he scored on Thursday; it takes a highly sensible player to score such a goal. He is a player that we all will be proud of; I just hope they promote him to the first team directly,” Ekpoki, who also played for Ismaily of Egypt before moving to Europe, said.
“For me, Iheanacho is Rui Costa with a left leg; his left leg is as dangerous as that of Solari, the Argentine, who once held sway in Real Madrid's midfield. With these qualities, I think he has what it takes to go all the way at City and any other big club in Europe. He will in no time establish himself in England if given the chance
“Just like they discovered his potential and took him with their 23-man squad to the US, they will also find out the same way, that they need him in their senior squad. I am really happy for the lad and I wish him well.”
Ekpoki also tipped Nwakali for greatness.
“I am happy that his Eaglets teammate, Chidiebere Nwakali, is also with City. He is a fantastic defensive midfielder, who can switch a game and at the same time organise the central midfield. He is very good and I love his style of play. I also tip him for greater things in the nearest future. In fact, a lot of players from the 2013 Golden Eaglets will go places,” he added.
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