Kelechi Iheanacho scored a superb hat-trick as Leicester City maintained their push for a top-four finish with a commanding Premier League victory over Sheffield United, in the Blades’ first game since the departure of manager Chris Wilder.
Having been appointed interim manager until the end of the season on Saturday, Under-23s boss Paul Heckingbottom took charge of bottom club United following Wilder’s departure by “mutual consent” after almost five years in charge.
But Leicester were far superior at King Power Stadium on Sunday, where Iheanacho continued his fine goalscoring form as the Foxes ran riot in the second half.
Iheanacho scored for a third successive Premier League game for the first time as he met Jamie Vardy’s cut-back to break the deadlock shortly before the interval.
Ayoze Perez had come closest to an early opener with a flicked header that Aaron Ramsdale diverted onto the post, but the Spaniard got the goal his performance deserved with a fine finish into the bottom corner after 64 minutes.
Iheanacho got his second from Vardy’s excellent pass five minutes later, before the Nigeria forward’s powerful strike sealed his first treble for the club.
Vardy thought he had ended a six-game goal drought with his shot 10 minutes from time, but Blades defender Ethan Ampadu made the decisive touch.
Leicester move into second place, above Manchester United, who face West Ham later on Sunday (19:15 GMT), while Sheffield United are 14 points adrift of safety.
Blades’ dismal start to life without Wilder
For the first time since a 1-0 defeat by Bolton Wanderers on the opening day of the 2016-17 League One campaign, Sheffield United took to the field without Wilder as manager.
Tasked with lifting the players for their final 10 Premier League games with relegation to the Championship looming, Heckingbottom was only able to link up with his players on Sunday due to Covid-19 protocols.
But the former Barnsley, Leeds United and Hibernian boss could not have been further from inspiring his side to a shock victory in a tough opening assignment against Leicester.
United failed to register a single attempt at goal in a one-sided first-half but they at least had Ramsdale to thank for not finding themselves further behind before the interval.
Chris Basham headed Vardy’s shot off the line as the Blades offered resistance early in the second half, but Heckingbottom’s side were torn apart as they shipped four goals in the space of 16 desperate minutes.
Having never lost by more than a three-goal margin under Wilder, United fell limply to their heaviest defeat since September 2008, bringing to a close a week that few could have envisaged less than one year on from the club’s remarkable ninth-placed finish on their top-flight return.
Iheanacho steadies Foxes in top-four fight
With nine games remaining, a top-four place and the chance to make amends for last season’s late collapse from the Champions League positions is within Leicester’s reach.
And it is the notable upturn in output from Iheanacho that is currently driving that push.
Iheanacho, bought from Manchester City for £25m in 2017, now has seven goals in his last eight games in all competitions following an impressive performance which demonstrated precisely why Leicester originally signed him.
The 24-year-old undeniably benefited from some magnificent passing moves behind him, but he worked hard for his team and was clinical and assured in his finishing when picked out by two perfectly weighted passes from Vardy.
Vardy has now only scored once in his past 15 games, after his late effort appeared to be travelling wide before Ampadu’s intervention, while he was also denied by Ramsdale and Basham, but his all-round contribution will have delighted manager Brendan Rodgers.
Leicester were at their free-flowing best from back to front in the second half, albeit against obliging opposition, and Perez was able to offer the necessary incisiveness in the absence of injured pair James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.
Rodgers’ side face stern tests against Manchester City and West Ham immediately after the international break, with the game against the fifth-placed Hammers in particular shaping up to be a must-win to avoid any end-of-season tension.
‘It’s an emotional dressing room’ – what the managers said
Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers to BBC Sport: “We were nice and aggressive. We didn’t give them many chances. When we had the ball we had to be patient, it took a little bit of time but once we got the breakthrough we were outstanding with the speed of our game.
“Kelechi Iheanacho is a great guy and when he has been asked to come in he has performed. Absolutely delighted for him to have got a hat-trick in the Premier League. It’s a great achievement and all were very good team goals.”
Sheffield United interim manager Paul Heckingbottom to BBC Sport: “We know the circumstances behind it. It’s been a tough week in losing Chris [Wilder]. He is a mate of mine. I’ve been in touch with him a few times. The players and the staff have lost their leader. It’s taken its toll. It’s an emotional dressing room.
“There were lots of habits in that performance which haven’t been there before. The standards have been slipping. I’m here to help between now and the end of the season.”
A heaviest league defeat in 21 years – the stats
- Since Brendan Rodgers’ first Premier League game in charge of Leicester, only Manchester City (57) and Liverpool (53) have won more matches in the competition than the Foxes (40).
- Sheffield United suffered their worst league defeat since April 2000, when they lost 5-0 to Blackburn Rovers in the second tier.
- United only shipped five goals in a match once in 227 matches under Chris Wilder in all competitions and never lost by more than a three-goal margin.
- Blades manager Paul Heckingbottom is the third manager in Premier League history to lose by five or more goals in his first game in charge, after Alan Smith in 1994 and Roberto Di Matteo in 2010.
- In 76 starts in all competitions for Manchester City and Leicester, Kelechi Iheanacho has been directly involved in 51 goals (37 goals, 14 assists).
- With two assists, Jamie Vardy became the sixth player to register 100 goal involvements in the Premier League after turning 30 (81 goals, 20 assists), after Teddy Sheringham (127), Frank Lampard (118), Ian Wright (110), Alan Shearer (102) and Gianfranco Zola (101).
- Ayoze Perez has scored three goals in his last 29 Premier League games for Leicester and all have come in matches against Sheffield United.
Both sides are in FA Cup quarter-final action next Sunday.
Sheffield United travel to face Chelsea at 13:30 GMT, before Leicester host Manchester United at 17:00.
- 21Ricardo PereiraSubstituted forAlbrightonat 45′minutes
- 17PérezSubstituted forLeshabelaat 81′minutes
- 29BryanBooked at 74mins
- 7LundstramBooked at 88mins
- 16NorwoodSubstituted forNdiayeat 79′minutes
- 14BurkeSubstituted forMoussetat 63′minutes
Match ends, Leicester City 5, Sheffield United 0.
Second Half ends, Leicester City 5, Sheffield United 0.
John Lundstram (Sheffield United) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Youri Tielemans (Leicester City) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by John Lundstram (Sheffield United).
Corner, Leicester City. Conceded by Ethan Ampadu.
Corner, Leicester City. Conceded by Kean Bryan.
Foul by Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City).
Ethan Ampadu (Sheffield United) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Attempt saved. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City) left footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Jamie Vardy.
Attempt missed. Jonny Evans (Leicester City) right footed shot from very close range misses to the right following a corner.
Corner, Leicester City. Conceded by Kean Bryan.
Attempt blocked. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City) left footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked. Assisted by Jamie Vardy.
Substitution, Leicester City. Thakgalo Leshabela replaces Ayoze Pérez.
Own Goal by Ethan Ampadu, Sheffield United. Leicester City 5, Sheffield United 0.
Attempt missed. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) left footed shot from a difficult angle on the left misses to the right. Assisted by Youri Tielemans.
Substitution, Sheffield United. Iliman Ndiaye replaces Oliver Norwood.
Goal! Leicester City 4, Sheffield United 0. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City) left footed shot from outside the box to the bottom right corner. Assisted by Wilfred Ndidi.
Kean Bryan (Sheffield United) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City) wins a free kick on the right wing.