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Kelechi Iheanacho: He scores when he starts

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Kelechi Iheanacho has the chance to prove himself over the next few weeks

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Kelechi Iheanacho has the chance to prove himself over the next few weeks

They may be big boots to fill, but no-one may be better qualified to step into Sergio Aguero’s than Kelechi Iheanacho.

With a goal or assist every 71 minutes this season (five goals and three assists in eight games), and 19 goals in 18 starts, the Nigerian striker is in red-hot form – and it’s timely.

With fellow forward Aguero suspended for four domestic games, Iheanacho is the natural replacement. With stats like that, there is cause for optimism – and the 20-year-old says he is ready for the challenge.

"I have a responsibility to be the striker for the team, replacing Sergio when he is not around," he says.

"I have to prove myself, give my best and work hard for the team and make sure we get the wins we need."

Iheanacho was on the scoresheet in Tuesday’s 1-1 Champions League draw with Celtic – his second goal in just 15 minutes of European action, latching onto Nolito’s through-ball before smashing past Craig Gordon to equalise.

It was a sweet finish – perhaps one we are not used to from a man more often found converting crosses (equally pleasingly!)

With a passing accuracy of 77%, plus two of three shots on target, he was voted the CityMatchday app users’ Man of the Match.After the game, Pep Guardiola praised his striker, insisting there is no pressure on him and that he simply has to continue to do what he has been doing.

Aguero himself echoed those sentiments.

Iheanacho explained: “Before we played Celtic [he said] that it’s up to me now to fill that gap, to carry the team along.

“He’s telling me I should do very well and they are words of encouragement from him. So I’m going to do it.”

Pablo Zabaleta also backed the Nigerian to shine, deeming him ‘ready’ for the fact Guardiola will be relying on him now more than ever.

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From the moment Iheanacho burst on the scene, he has been tipped for greatness. His first City goal – a last-minute winner at Crystal Palace with his first touch – rendered him an instant hero with the Blue faithful, and now there is an air of expectation when his name appears in the starting XI or his number is held aloft by the fourth official.

Following his strike against Celtic, the striker has earned plenty of acclaim from journalists of the footballing world too.

Four Four Two were particularly impressed with his goal, stating: “It was the sort of dead-eyed finishing the 20-year-old has made his calling card since being elevated to City's first-team squad by Manuel Pellegrini last season.

“Iheanacho also showed other strings to his bow by orchestrating a move midway through the second half only for Nolito's celebrations to be cut short by the linesman's flag.

“Indeed, there was enough pleasing interplay from Nolito and Iheanacho to suggest they could function as a pair. Even without Aguero, Guardiola's options in attack remain plentiful.”

As reported in our daily media round-up, the Mirror’s John Cross wrote: “Incredibly, Iheanacho has now scored 13 goals in 18 starts for Manchester City. That is some goal scoring record for a 20-year-old who is still seen as back-up for Sergio Aguero or a supersub.

“Those stats prove he can do it in the big games from the start. He has got pace, movement and a prolific eye for goal.

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“Maybe, just maybe, City might not miss Aguero during his four game domestic ban as much as we thought.

“And maybe it will give Iheanacho the chance to prove he can deliver on a regular basis in the Premier League.”

The Daily Mail’s Jack Gaughan scribed: “Unassuming off the pitch, the Nigerian has bite in the box and is a deadly finisher”, while an article on BT Sports’ website reads: “Iheanacho made a positive impression after being promoted to the first-team squad by Manuel Pellegrini last season, scoring 14 goals.

“He has found opportunities harder to come by since Pep Guardiola took charge in the summer, but has still struck five times.”

UEFA.com agreed: “The Nigerian has an impressive sense of where the goal is, as he demonstrated after eight minutes. There might have been more but he will hope he has showed Josep Guardiola that he can go some way towards filling the gap left by Sergio Agüero's domestic suspension in the coming weeks."

The Premier League website also revealed Fantasy Football Managers had been quick to snap up the Nigerian.

The Scout divulged: “With Sergio Aguero (£13.0m) suspended for the next four Gameweeks the Argentinian was left on the substitutes bench, and Iheanacho led the line convincingly in Tuesday night's match against Celtic.

“Iheanacho, who has produced a goal and an assist in two of his three Premier League starts in 2016/17, next faces a Leicester side who have conceded two goals in four successive Gameweeks.

“More than 45,000 FPL managers have drafted in Iheanacho since last weekend's deadline as a result of Aguero’s ban.”

While City’s upcoming opponents may have been rubbing their hands together at the knowledge they would not have to come up against Aguero, their confidence may well take a stutter with the realisation 20-year-old Iheanacho will likely feature instead.

Without tempting fate, let’s hope his ruthless streak continues…

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