With eight goals in nine games -- including five in his last two -- Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho has finally announced himself. Last Sunday's hat trick in the 5-0 win over Sheffield United in the Premier League was followed by a brace on Sunday in Leicester's 3-1 FA Cup elimination of Manchester United, and his country of Nigeria will be thrilled to see him return to form.
Iheanacho's goals are a by-product of the excellent foundations that he has refined and polished over the last few months, as well as the burgeoning understanding he shares with strike partner Jamie Vardy up front. The Nigerian is looking sharper than he has ever done before -- like when he pressed and nicked Fred's backpass to round United goalkeeper Dean Henderson for Leicester's opening goal -- and he is also getting himself into great positions too.
"It is very good news for us," Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr told ESPN. "I am very happy and very proud because he worked very hard and is now playing and scoring."
Iheanacho's international record is good: He scored eight times in his first 14 international games between 2015 and 2017 (more than a goal every two games), before he went on a slump for 2018 and was left out of the 2019 AFCON. Though he returned in 2020 and scored in a friendly against Tunisia, he has played second fiddle to Victor Osimhen.
However, his new-found form and consistency could not have come at a better time for Rohr as the coach prepares his side for two Africa Cup of Nations qualifying games matches against Benin Republic and Lesotho in less than two weeks.
Osimhen has been going through a rough patch, with injuries and a COVID-19 infection to deal with, leaving the Nigeria coach struggling for options up front. Paul Onuachu, the main alternative, has been on fire at club level for Genk but seems unable to buy a goal in a Nigeria shirt and was originally left on the standby list for this month's qualifiers before being promoted when Samuel Kalu and Moses Simon had to withdraw due to coronavirus restrictions in France.
Rohr called up Almeria's Sadiq Umar -- the only other forward besides Onuachu and Iheanacho with a goal tally in double figures this season -- to run the rule over him as he looks for a plan B. But Umar has very little in the way of international experience, having only featured at youth level for Nigeria, and was withdrawn by his club over COVID-19 fears anyway.
Of the potential four options at his disposal, only Rohr's first choice, Osimhen, has less than five club goals so far this season: The Napoli striker has three, while Onuachu (26), Umar (14) and Iheanacho (10) are doing better. But it's Iheanacho's recent form which has led many former Nigeria internationals to call for him to play a major part in the quest to reach the Africa Cup of Nations finals.
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Former striker Jonathan Akpoborie told ESPN that Rohr must find a way to play both Iheanacho and Osimhen together, saying: "Looking from the outside, both of them can easily play together for Nigeria. The coach must find a system to suit both players."
Former WBA left-back Ifeanyi Udeze added: "I think Iheanacho should lead the team in our next two games because he has been playing and scoring for his club side lately, and I believe he will score again for us."
It has been a long and difficult road for the 24-year-old, helped in no small measure by the patience and belief of Leicester manger Brendan Rodgers, whose trust in the Nigerian never wavered even when he was not giving him the minutes he desperately needed. And while Iheanacho has struggled to impose himself due to the stop-start nature of his appearances, his current form is proof that consistent playing time can only lead to goals.
His understanding with Leicester and Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi is also something that should give Rohr a smile. Both players have developed a wonderful partnership that should bode well for the Super Eagles, in much the same way as Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze appear to have a telepathic understanding in the green and white.
Given how little time there will be to get the Nigeria team to train together and the possibility of even more withdrawals to come, it is something Rohr will welcome as he tries to decide whether to start Iheanacho, or Osimhen or both. Rohr was keeping his cards close to his chest, however, telling ESPN: "We wait first, yes until all the players are with us and we train, then we decide."
Surely though, Iheanacho has done enough to earn himself a starting role in that forward line.