Kelechi Iheanacho fires new belief in Nigeria: Report
In 2005, the object of their affections was a tall midfielder called John Obi Mikel whose languid movement masked pinpoint passing and exemplary vision. His early promise led to a transfer war between Chelsea and Manchester United — which was eventually won by the Blues — and expectations elevated to such a level that he was crowned as a replacement for midfield maestro Austin Okocha before he had even made his senior international debut.
Despite winning a host of trophies with Chelsea and helping Nigeria to the 2013 African Nations Cup title, the general belief is that Mikel’s potential has been largely unfulfilled. Indeed, it would only be an incurable optimist who would list Mikel as one of the Super Eagles’ greats.
Fast forward a decade and there is belief that a young pretender again holds the key to Nigeria’s success. Iheanacho, 18, is the same age Mikel was in 2005, although the young City striker has already outshone his rival in terms of success at youth level.
Mikel claims the honours at U20 level with second place finish and Silver Ball trophy at the world championships, but Iheanacho’s silver at the African U17 championships trumps Mikel’s bronze. His title win and Golden Ball at the U17 world championships is well ahead of Mikel’s first round elimination and he has plenty of time left to add to his haul.
On the individual front, both are very different players but it is hard not to pick Iheanacho’s style as the one that catches the eye. He is quick, technically gifted, can pick a pass, link up play, run the lines high up the pitch and has goals in him. He is also at a more advanced stage in his development having spent time with Manchester City since he was 17.
Manu Garba, who coached the Nigeria U17 and U20 teams where Iheanacho exploded on to the scene, compares his protege to 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.”
These are the qualities Nigerians see and have based their newfound confidence upon. On Saturday, within seconds of coming on, Iheanacho popped up in the box to stab home from close range and win a tight game for City at Selhurst Park.
Garba would have watched that with a little chuckle. Since the retirement of greats like Austin Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu, the Super Eagles have struggled to produce genuine world class talent but for many Nigerians, Iheanacho represents the promise of a return to the glory days. His energy, movement, skills and goal-scoring mark him out as the complete package.
Prior to Saturday’s cameo, the calls were already growing to have him called up to the senior Nigeria set-up. It is hard to see Nigeria coach Sunday Oliseh, who — from his tweets — was watching at home, leaving him out of his next squad. Oliseh clearly sees Iheanacho as the future of Nigerian football; the same as former coach Stephen Keshi, who first called him up to training camp for the 2014 African Nations Championship, a tournament for players playing in their home countries.
Iheanacho has a high expectation level in his homeland.
Iheanacho never made the final squad, as he left camp to sign his contract with Manchester City, but if he continues on his current upward trajectory and maintains a high level of consistency, he could be the spark required to light up the Super Eagles.
Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini admitted after the game that Iheanacho was the reason he did not acquire another striker following the departure of Edin Dzeko to Roma. With Sergio Aguero seemingly injured , it appears the Nigerian starlet might just get a few more chances to shine in the coming weeks.
A note of caution, though. Such high expectations usually lead to disappointment, as has been demonstrated in the past, and there is still some way to go before Kelechi’s shoulders will be broad enough to bear the massive weight of Nigerian hope.
Both Keshi and Oliseh have done the right thing in keeping him away from the national set up while he grows with his club. And even when he does get that international call, restraint and patience will be required.
Mikel triggered mass Nigerian support for Chelsea, despite never quite reaching the heights expected of him. If he can keep his feet on the ground, the evidence suggests that Iheanacho is on course to do the same for Manchester City.
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