Pep Guardiola’s effect on Kelechi Iheanacho was almost immediate. In only his second appearance under the new Manchester City manager the change in his game was evident for all to see. Racing through on goal against Stoke, Shay Given beaten, the Nigerian looked certain to try to find the back of the net and open his account for the season. Then he did something totally unexpected.
Checking back inside, he looked up and rolled the ball to the advancing Nolito, who picked his spot. Even from a tight angle it must have gone against every instinct in Iheanacho’s body to pass. He is a natural goal-scorer. A precocious talent who has been elevated from City’s academy to Sergio Aguero’sunderstudy in less than 12 months. On Saturday he is in line to fill the suspended Argentine’s boots in Guardiola’s first Manchester derby. And it may just be that act of selflessness at the Bet365 Stadium that secures his place in the XI at Old Trafford.
In that moment he showed Guardiola that he is a quick learner – a player willing to absorb the Catalan’s advice and adhere to the strict philosophy of a man who has even asked Aguero to change in his opening weeks at the Etihad. “I think the only time I speak with him is on the pitch when we train,” said Iheanacho of his relationship with his manager last month. “I didn’t have a discussion before I signed my contract. “The only time we talk is on the pitch”.
It has certainly had an impact. It was only a week before Stoke – in City’s opening game of the season against Sunderland – that he left Guardiola exasperated on the touchline. With David Moyes’ side threatening to prove party poopers – holding City to a 1-1 draw with the clock winding down – substitute Iheanacho found himself in sight of goal again. With a tight angle to aim at and teammates racing in support, he only had eyes for the back of the net. As the chance went begging – and seemingly with it two points – Guardiola could not disguise his fury watching on.
A late own goal by Paddy McNair no doubt saved Iheanacho a rollicking – but his manager is sure to have had words all the same. The 19-year-old’s actions at Stoke just days later are the clearest indication of that – and evidence that he can realise his considerable potential under Guardiola. He is still to score for City this season – but his wonderful goal for Nigeria against Tanzania during the international break is a reminder that Marcus Rashford is not the only emerging striker in Manchester. In the absence of his most potent force in Aguero, Guardiola will be hoping Iheanacho can produce something similar at Old Trafford.
And the Nigerian striker is looking forward to repaying the Catalan’s faith in him by scoring the goal that will condemn Manchester United to an home defeat against their city rivals. Iheanacho said that: “It promises to be a tough tie and it is on the pitch that I hope to do the talking to justify my coach’s faith in me”.