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Iheanacho winner pushes Leicester closer to Champions League

April 26, 2021 GMT
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Leicester's Kelechi Iheanacho celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, April 26, 2021. (Andrew Boyers/Pool via AP)
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Leicester's Kelechi Iheanacho celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, April 26, 2021. (Andrew Boyers/Pool via AP)

LEICESTER, England (AP) — Kelechi Iheanacho extended his career-best scoring form with a blistering winning goal as Leicester rallied to beat Crystal Palace 2-1 in the English Premier League and establish a seven-point cushion in the top four on Monday.

The Nigeria striker made it 14 goals in his last 14 games in all competitions — and brought Champions League qualification one step closer for Leicester — when he brought down a long ball forward from Jonny Evans, cut inside and smashed a rising shot with little back-lift inside the near post in the 80th minute.

Iheanacho had earlier set up Timothy Castagne for the 50th-minute equalizer, which canceled out Wilfried Zaha’s opening goal for Palace, and is proving to be a revelation in the second half of the season after coming into the team in February because of injuries to teammates Harvey Barnes and James Maddison.

It is his first lengthy stint in the starting lineup since joining from Manchester City in the offseason of 2017 and he is even outshining strike partner Jamie Vardy, for so long the team’s talisman and most likely scorer.

“When you have confidence in your game, it makes you perform really well,” said Iheanacho, who has 12 goals in his last nine games. “It gives you a base. When you score a goal, it gets your mind high, it keeps coming and you keep scoring.”

The brilliant finish, which saw Iheanacho shift the ball onto his favored left foot and shoot before the defender and goalkeeper in front of him were set, came as no surprise to Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. He described Iheanacho as a “nightmare in training” because of his intelligent finishing and said he has “everything to be a top striker.”

“Having a massive figure like Jamie Vardy in front of you, in the system we were playing, was always going to be difficult for him,” Schmeichel said. “But credit to him, every day since he’s come, he works so hard and he just needed that bit of luck or that goal to go in to give him that confidence, that belief.”

Iheanacho’s hot streak could push Leicester over the line in the race for Champions League qualification, too.

The win cemented third place for Brendan Rodgers’ team, which is four points ahead of Chelsea in fourth and seven clear of West Ham in fifth. Liverpool is a point further behind, with all four teams having five games to play.

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Leicester faded away badly at the end of last season to drop out of the top four on the final weekend. That doesn’t look like happening this time, with a second year in the Champions League — after 2016-17 — looking likely even after a grueling season that included a Europa League campaign.

Rodgers spoke openly about the team’s poor finish to last season in a preseason chat with his players, determined for it not to be an “elephant in the room.”

“You sense that might have lingered about if we didn’t address it,” Rodgers said. “Over that preseason period, we went away for a couple of days, we spoke about it and took on the challenge for the current season.”

Evans’ raking pass forward for Iheanacho’s winning goal wasn’t his only significant moment of the match. In the 55th minute, with the score tied, he produced a stunning clearance to deny Christian Benteke a tap-in to an unguarded net after Jaïro Riedewald broke the offside trap.

Leicester’s win left Liverpool with even slimmer hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, just a year after Jurgen Klopp’s team won the league for the first time in 30 years.

With Leicester eight points ahead, Chelsea — which is within four points — is the only team Liverpool can realistically reel in now.

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