Teen stars have their say

Teen stars have their say

Football : Manchester United's Anthony Martial and Man City's Kelechi Iheanacho impressed on their debut

Teen stars have their say

What is it about teenagers making their debuts in bright pink shoes? Anthony Martial and Kelechi Iheanacho were thrown in as late substitutes last Saturday and effectively told by their Premier League teams to go win the game, to go score us a goal.

Martial, the new $55 million winger signed by Manchester United on the last day of this summer’s transfer window, danced his way around three Liverpool defenders as he scored the game clincher.

Iheanacho, given just one minute before the end of a tough and at times brutal stalemate, did exactly the same thing for Manchester City at Crystal Palace. He nipped in to prod the winner just a few seconds after being sent in.

“I told you three weeks ago that we would not buy another striker,” City Coach Manuel Pellegrini reminded journalists after the 1-0 win that keeps City five points ahead in first — and 11 points ahead of Chelsea. “We have Agüero, we have Bony, but it is important that we give Kelechi some minutes to score goals in this league.”

The importance borders on prescience. Sergio Agüero had been kicked out of the contest by Palace defender Scott Dann. Wilfried Bony was flagging after his own recent injuries. Iheanacho, an 18-year-old Nigerian whose middle name is Promise, had already shown with goals on City’s preseason tour of the United States that he had the instinct and fearlessness of a born striker.

One minute does not make a career. But Iheanacho had impressed City in 2013, when he won the Golden Ball at FIFA’s World Under-17 World Cup. The tournament was held in Abu Dhabi, which happens to be the home of Manchester City’s owner, and from the first game on, when he scored four goals against Mexico, Iheanacho started to be scouted by Arsenal, City and leading Portuguese clubs.

He made so much progress at City’s academy that Pellegrini decided in August to unload Edin Dzeko, the big Bosnian striker, to AS Roma.

Iheanacho, the coach said at the time, will grow and score goals in this league.
The goal against Palace was in the nick of time. Grown men had become weary during a game that was, by far, City’s toughest in its five-win start in the league. Pellegrini was embroiled in a sideline confrontation with the opposing coach, Alan Pardew, following a heavy tackle by City’s Yaya Touré — though that was not so foul as the first-half kick to the knee that ended Agüero’s afternoon early.

While the grown men squabbled, it required the fresh and clear mind of a teenager to steal in and score the winner. And while the goal looked simple, it was anything but. Iheanacho moved more quickly than anyone else to anticipate a rebound off the goalkeeper in the crowded area in front of the goal.

Iheanacho slid to his knees and pointed to the sky. Shortly afterward, as kids learn to do at ever-earlier ages these days, he said on TV: “I’m happy to score a great goal. I thank the manager for introducing me, and I must work hard in training to get some more minutes.”

Martial, almost a year older than Iheanacho, might learn to say such things on British television, once he masters the language. For now, instructions have to be passed between United’s Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, to Martial via the French speakers on the team, Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini.

Before Martial, who cost more to acquire than any other teenager in history, started warming up to enter the game, van Gaal huddled with Schneiderlin over what instructions to give to the 19-year-old.

Presumably he was told to show everyone why he had been compared with the former French great Thierry Henry. The 75,000 in the crowd needed it after a first half that had more potential to induce slumber than any sleeping pill.

With a dance and a shimmy, Martial came off the left flank. He darted between Liverpool’s defenders, bamboozled the veteran Martin Skrtel and, when space opened up, he shot with deadly precision beyond the exposed goalkeeper.

The goal was needed because Liverpool had just gotten back into the game with a marvelously improvised, overhead shot by Christian Benteke that made the score 2-1. It was a reminder that substitutes can change games, regardless of age.

Everton’s Scottish forward, Steven Naismith, came off the bench much earlier in his game against Chelsea, then far and away proved to be decisive at Goodison Park. Naismith, who changed his mind about being sold to Norwich City in August to remain with Everton, will turn 29 this week.

Chelsea should have known all about him, but Chelsea’s start to its defence of the league title has been riddled with frailty all season. Naismith scored the classic hat trick — goals with his head, his left foot and his right foot — as Everton won, 3-1.

Naismith has not started a game in the league this season, but he was persuaded by manager Roberto Martínez to stay at the club. His biggest assets are energy, desire and knowing when to sense that an opposing defence is weakened.

Chelsea is struggling to keep out goals despite the experience in its defence and the caution of its coach, José Mourinho. Experience and caution are not in vogue in the Premiership at the moment — youth and daring are. And so are shocking pink shoes.

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