It will be a battle of two Nigerians in the English Emirates FA Cup on Sunday as John Obi Mikel inspired Chelsea will try to cage Kelechi Iheanacho and his Manchester City teammates.
Iheanacho, who has been a revelation this season, has emerged as a genuine option for Manuel Pellegrini, scoring nine times this season.
The 19-year-old striker has flourished in this season’s FA Cup, scoring at Norwich in the third round before a hat-trick against Aston Villa in the fourth.
But going down memory lane, the former U-17 World Cup winner with the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria attributed his success to Pellegrinni for believing in him.
He has already built trust with his manager, and the Nigerian’s task now is to continue building on that.
“I wasn’t expecting that. I was working with the EDS [Elite Development Squad]. Manuel Pelegrinni said I was going with them to Australia in pre-season and after we came back I was in the first team. I was a bit surprised,”he told Dailymail.
“You feel a bit nervous, these are great players. It’s important to listen. I’m happy playing with them now and they give me confidence to play, they encourage me a lot. That doesn’t mean I’ll disrespect them or feel I’m one of them now. I wouldn’t just do anything I liked — I’ve got to keep my head down, keep working hard.”
He may be young and relatively raw, but Iheanacho has demonstrated he has the sort of capabilities to do the same. He has excellent pace, is quick-thinking and, as the Spurs back line found out a week ago on Sunday, he has an eye for goal.
Despite expecting to spend this season in City’s development squad, Iheanacho has played 17 league games and has taken a real liking to the FA Cup, in which he has started twice and scored four goals.
With nine goals already under his belt in an excellent debut year, he is ready to lead the line for City at Stamford Bridge but has no recollection of ever seeing an FA Cup tie back home.
‘We didn’t have the money. Maybe after the game I’d hear the scores and all that. I’d be at home playing football and my friends would come back after being there to tell me. We didn’t have a television at home,” he added.
Chelsea are currently 12th in the Premier League standings with 33 points from 26 fixtures, and return to domestic on Sunday when Manchester City visit Stamford Bridge and Mikel is ready to bounce back with the team after their defeat to PSG in the UEFA Champions League.
Mikel scored only his sixth goal in 358 Chelsea appearances, netting from close range after PSG failed to clear Willian’s corner in first half stoppage time, with the visitors eventually succumbing 2-1 against much-fancied opposition.
“You never know what team Man City will put out. I’m sure they want to win the FA Cup as much as we do. We want to win every game. We want to win every cup. Sunday is going to be massive. We can’t win the league. So the FA Cup and the Champions League are the ones and we have to keep going,” he told London Guardian.
Mikel has arguably become a cult figure at Chelsea in recent times, his decade at the club having taken in spells under eight different permanent or interim managers.
“I’ve seen them all,” he said. “Guus has come in again and settled things down. Players feel free to play and free to take responsibility and thrive on that, but he’s done it in a very relaxed way, which is sometimes what players need. Now we’re picking up results in the league.
“It feels great to be back in the side. Sometimes it is disappointing not to be part of the team, not to play, but I’ve always been professional. I never speak out, I never get upset, I carry on doing my job, coming to training every day to train with the guys who are playing. This is football. In one second it changes. I’ve always believed in myself and kept doing what I was doing and Guus came in and has given me the opportunity. Hopefully that will continue. This is my 10th season … there’ll be a testimonial soon.”
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