Kelechi Iheanacho squeezes Leicester past Walsall and into FA Cup fifth round

For more than an hour Leicester were frustrated with their League Two opponents Walsall gamely providing resistance but Brendan Rodgers turned to his proven FA Cup finisher and Kelechi Iheanacho duly delivered. The striker had been on the pitch for only five minutes, as a second-half substitute, but his deflected strike – his 17th goal in the competition from 23 appearances – was enough to edge Leicester into the fifth round.

Despite dominating possession and peppering in 28 shots Leicester had to wait until the 68th minute for their fortuitous breakthrough. Youri Tielemans, who struck the winner for Leicester in the 2021 FA Cup final, missed a penalty after the break with his effort cannoning off the post. But Iheanacho, who has scored the most goals in the competition since his debut in 2016, again made the difference to provide a timely lift for Leicester and welcome relief from their struggles in the Premier League.

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Rodgers, who will be without Jamie Vardy for several weeks after he sustained a glute injury which kept him out of the tie, said: “Today he [Iheanacho] made a great impact. Some players just have that. It’s probably because he’s featured more. Maybe when’s he not been a starter for so many teams, then he gets his chance in the FA Cup and takes it and scores.

“Certainly for us, he’s made a great impact in the competition since I’ve been here. I thought he came into the game today with a real fire in his belly to perform and did really well to create the goal for us.”

James Maddison made his first start for Leicester since returning from the World Cup after recovering from his latest knee injury. Rodgers selected a strong team with only three changes from last week’s draw against Brighton. Leicester created the first significant opportunity but Patson Daka was unable to direct his diving header on target. Andy Williams’ low strike provided Walsall’s opening attempt, with the goalkeeper Daniel Iversen parrying his shot although the offside flag was raised.

Maddison was incensed after feeling the full effect of a sturdy challenge from Robbie Willmott but was afforded no sympathy by the referee Gavin Ward, who dished out a yellow card to the England midfielder for dissent. Maddison lasted just over 60 minutes and was given a hot reception from the locals after his substitution.

Daka was a frequent threat for Leicester but the striker’s low shot on the turn was comfortably held by the Walsall goalkeeper Owen Evans. At the other end, Tom Knowles thrashed an ambitious volley wide from distance but Walsall were not looking out of place against their opponents despite the huge gap in the football pyramid.

Leicester were handed a golden opportunity to open the scoring, at the start of the second half, after the assistant referee convinced the referee to award a penalty for Isaac Hutchinson’s trip on Daka. Tielemans stepped up but struck the post, sparking wild celebrations from Walsall.

Roared on by a sellout crowd at the Bescot Stadium, Walsall almost stunned Leicester immediately after the miss when Williams fired a fierce volley over the bar. The visitors moved through the gears and Harvey Barnes produced a neat turn in the box but his low strike was parried by the impressive Evans. He was keeping Leicester at bay and reacted sharply to thwart Tielemans and Daka in a quickfire double-save.

Rodgers introduced Iheanacho, along with the new signing Victor Kristiansen, midway through the half as his team pushed for the winner. His changes paid off handsomely and Iheanacho’s strike, which deflected off the unfortunate Brandon Comley, finally broke Walsall’s resistance. It was Iheanacho’s seventh goal in his last seven FA Cup appearances.

Iheanacho should have added to his mighty record in the final 10 minutes but his strike from Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s cutback was blocked. Walsall had struggled to create openings and a late chance came from a corner but Conor Wilkinson’s header was held by Iversen.

Walsall’s head coach, Michael Flynn, said: “The FA Cup is a bonus. It’s magic and the recipe you need is everybody to have a good game, take your chances and one or two of them to have an off day. Unfortunately they didn’t so the magic didn’t happen.

“Brendan Rodgers said some amazing words after the game and that instantly made me feel better.”

Walsall will turn their focus back to League Two, while with Iheanacho involved, Leicester will fancy their chances of another run to Wembley.