Iheanacho, Ndidi celebrate as Leicester City clinch first English FA Cup

Leicester City beat Chelsea 1-0 on Saturday to lift the English FA Cup for the first time in it’s 137-year history.

English FA Cup

Belgium’s Youri Tielemans’s sensational winner was witnessed by 22,000 fans at Wembley.

The largest crowd for a sporting event in England since the coronavirus pandemic hit 14 months ago were treated to a goal worthy to win any trophy as the Belgian midfielder blasted into the top corner on 63 minutes.

Five years after the Foxes stunned the Premier League’s giants to become champions, Leicester have now claimed English football’s other prestigious trophy at the fifth time of asking.

Four times they had previously lost the final, but the last of those was 52 years ago.

“It’s a historical day for the football club,” said club manager Brendan Rodgers. “Winning the FA Cup for the first time. I’m so happy for the players and supporters. They’ve lost four finals and now a fifth time we’ve managed to do it for them.”

Chelsea now need a quick response after losing for just the fourth time in 27 games since Thomas Tuchel replaced the sacked Frank Lampard in January.

The Blues also have a Champions League final to look forward to against Manchester City in two weeks’ time, but could end the campaign without silverware or a place in Europe’s premier club competition next season.

“Of course we are disappointed but we are not angry,” said Tuchel. “This performance was enough to win it, today we are simply unlucky. You need luck in this game to be able to win”

One moment of magic proved decisive as Tielemans collected possession midway inside the Chelsea half and strode forward before unleashing an unstoppable strike into the top corner past Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Tuchel flexed the strength in depth of his squad in an attempt to find an equaliser as Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ben Chilwell, Kai Havertz, Olivier Giroud and Christian Pulisic were all introduced off the bench.

But they were denied by the brilliance of Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal.

Chilwell, whose every touch was booed by the Leicester support, twice nearly came back to haunt his old club as his first effort was turned onto the post by the Dane.

For Nigeria’s Kelechi Iheanacho, being a back-up was all he ever knew.

Fresh from being voted the best player at the Under-17 World Cup in 2013, the Nigeria striker signed his first professional contract at Manchester City the following year but had Sergio Aguero, among others, ahead of him.

Iheanacho had his moments, mostly as a substitute or in the early rounds of cup competitions, but was never likely to be first choice at City at such a young age and moved to Leicester in 2017 after one year under Pep Guardiola.

There, another club great stood in his way: Jamie Vardy. And with Leicester playing one up front, Iheanacho again found himself mostly stuck on the bench and had scored only nine Premier League goals in 3½ seasons by the time an injury crisis hit the team in February.

Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers had been struck by the way Iheanacho always had a positive mentality in training, even in his many low and frustrated moments. He also noticed how diligent the player was in working on his finishing, unlike many strikers Rodgers had worked with who relied on their natural talent.

So, Rodgers altered his system and chose to pair Iheanacho with Vardy.

Six years into his senior career, the 24-year-old Iheanacho was finally getting a run of games on the highest stage.

He hasn’t looked back.

With 13 goals in 12 straight appearances, he is the form striker in English soccer since the start of March and is the player most likely to lead Leicester to victory in the FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday.

“My only worry with him,” Rodgers said, “is that he’s running out of celebrations. He needs to keep looking at the numbers of celebrations he has left. Hopefully he can keep scoring and keep celebrating.”

Nowhere have Iheanacho’s goals been more important than in the FA Cup.

He scored winners against Brighton in the last 16 and against Southampton in the semifinals at Wembley Stadium. In between, his double helped Leicester beat Manchester United 3-1 in the quarterfinals, in an individual display that made many really sit up and realize Iheanacho’s emergence was no flash in the pan.

“I think FA Cup loves me,” said Iheanacho, who scored a hat trick for City in a cup match at Aston Villa in 2016 in just his fifth start for the team. “And I love the FA Cup.”

Breaching Chelsea’s defense will be another challenge entirely, with the team having kept 19 clean sheets in 26 games since Thomas Tuchel arrived in late January. It is the elite defense in Europe at the moment, not just England.

Yet Iheanacho’s finishing has been of such a high standard that he is almost impossible to keep quiet. Where he stands almost alone, at least in the Premier League, is his ability to get shots off quickly by nudging the ball slightly to one side and striking it immediately with little back-lift but still plenty of power, before his marker is set.

There have been two examples of that in recent weeks, his sublime winner against Crystal Palace on April 26 and then what proved to be just a consolation strike against Newcastle last week.

Leicester’s own goalkeeper knows all about that.

“He’s so good at the particular one where he shifts it and then puts it through the defender’s legs and wrongfoots the goalkeeper,” Kasper Schmeichel said. “He does it in training all the time. He’s a nightmare in training, to be fair.”

Iheanacho’s talent has always been there. In that Under-17 World Cup eight years ago, he scored six goals and led Nigeria to the title.

At one stage while at City he had the best goals-to-minutes ratio of any player in Premier League history who had scored a minimum of 10. That came after he scored 12 goals from only 19 shots, netting every 96 minutes.

AFP

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