The Nigeria forward believes the Foxes can meet this season’s targets, but it would be harder than ever in the upcoming campaign
Without a doubt, last season was bittersweet for Leicester City; there was that glorious FA Cup triumph — the first in the club’s history — but the campaign ultimately ended on a sour note on the final day of the Premier League.
At half-time in gameweek 38, the Foxes were set for their second-ever Champions League journey, but a second-half collapse against Tottenham Hotspur at the King Power Stadium meant they had to lick their wounds for the second season running.
While the immediate schadenfreude was particularly excessive, it was dismissively devoid of any context.
Admittedly, back-to-back final day defeats which resulted in missing out on Champions League football had to rankle, Brendan Rodgers’ team were already punching above their weight and running on empty in both campaigns.
Kelechi Iheanacho somewhat typified the Foxes’ overachievement in 20/21, particularly in the second half of the season when Jamie Vardy’s goalscoring numbers plummeted, James Maddison missed huge chunks of the run-in and Harvey Barnes was absent through injury.
The Nigeria forward’s ascent to prominence allowed the East Midlands side to stay in the race for as long as they did, but it ultimately wasn’t enough.
Iheanacho netted an impressive 11 league goals in the final 12 games and equally played a giant part in their run to a first FA Cup final since 1968.
Despite the arrival of Patson Daka, the forward remains pleased to be back for pre-season, is looking forward to the season ahead and believes his side won’t falter this time around.
“Obviously, I scored goals last season. I think, this season, we really need to do more and focus on our games,” Iheanacho told the club’s official website on Monday. “I have a good feeling that this season, it might fall for us and we will get what we want.
“As I said before, we need to concentrate and focus on the games, one after the other and hopefully, we will get there in the end,” Iheanacho added. “I pray for more goals, but most importantly, more wins and more points.”
It goes without saying, but what Leicester desire has to be a return to Champions League football. It would be only their second appearance among Europe’s elite, yet there’s an admiration for how the club is run and for their concerted effort in upsetting the top six applecart.
In that sense, it essentially makes next season make-or-break for the Foxes because finishing in the top four in 21/22 will be doubly difficult than it was in the preceding campaigns…theoretically, at least.
The Manchester clubs are favourites for two of the Champions League spots, owing to City’s league dominance and continued CL involvement under Pep, and United’s ambition in the transfer market so far.
European champions Chelsea, despite a lack of transfer investment so far, will make finishing in the top four the absolute minimum target for the season, while Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool aren’t expected to be as poor as they were results-wise until the closing stages of last season.
Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have all returned from long-term injuries, while Trent Alexander-Arnold is back in training after missing Euro 2020. Sadio Mane, awfully below-par for the first time in years, is expected to get better and Mohamed Salah just promises a torrent of goals, good performances or otherwise.
Arsenal mustn’t be discounted either.
Mikel Arteta’s men have quietly added to their squad in the summer — signing Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares so far, with Brighton & Hove Albion’s Ben While expected to follow — and the North London side’s European absence in 21/22 means they can throw everything they have into finishing in the top four for the first time since 2015/16.
Throw in the Africa Cup of Nations expected to take place between January and February and Leicester’s prospects may weaken. Having to do without Wilfred Ndidi, Iheanacho and Daka for the month-long showpiece might be detrimental and it’ll be interesting to see how Rodgers navigates that period amid the busy English football calendar.
Given the difficulty of making CL football via the league, you sense the Europa League may offer even greater value for Rodgers and his troops. The winner gets an automatic slot to Europe’s elite tournament and Villarreal are the latest beneficiary of the incentive.
The Yellow Submarine’s win over Man United in May will see Unai Emery’s team return to the competition for the first time since 2011/12, a possibility Rodgers may well explore if league qualification appears slim.
Undoubtedly, the former Liverpool boss will require Vardy to return to form, Iheanacho by and large continuing his fine run and Daka adapting swiftly to produce goals, while the pair of Ndidi and Youri Tielemans need to thrive yet again in midfield, with the former hopefully staying fit for the majority of the campaign.
Despite Iheanacho’s bullishness, the Nigerian has to be aware of the challenge that awaits. Indeed, securing a Champions League slot regardless of the teams they’re competing with will arguably be Leicester’s greatest achievement since that unforgettable 2017 PL win.