The Nigeria striker may have been dealt a bad hand recently, but there’s a lot to be thankful for
Odion Ighalo, who turned 33 this week, will doubtless be immensely grateful for what has been a fine career both at club and international level.
The striker has played in some of the world’s biggest leagues, he’s represented his boyhood club Manchester United, and played at the World Cup.
He’s in Nigeria’s top ten scorers of all time, and is one of only six Super Eagles to have won the Africa Cup of Nations Golden Boot during his career.
However, when the striker does review his time in the game, he may reflect on a few critical moments when things could have gone a little more in his favour and taken his legacy in the sport to a greater level.
After encouraging spells at Julius Berger, Lyn and Granada among others, he arrived at Watford—initially on loan—in 2014, and was influential as the club returned to the Premier League.
Ighalo’s breakout campaign was 2014-15, when he scored 20 goals in 35 league outings to send the Hornets back to the top flight, finishing as the division’s joint fourth top scorer in the process.
This prompted—at the age of 25—Ighalo’s promotion to the senior Nigeria side.
Even though he’d represented the U-20s in 2009, during his time in Italy, he had been made to wait for his promotion to the seniors, with the striker having to wait until Daniel Amokachi held the reins—temporarily—of the national side to include him.
Perhaps the forward should have been considered earlier, with Stephen Keshi looking elsewhere—including the likes of Bright Dike and Michael Uchebo—before including the ex-Cesena man.
Considering he was only three days short of his 26th birthday when he scored his first international goal, it’s mighty impressive that Ighalo has outscored Nigeria greats like Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, Nwankwo Kanu and Julius Aghahowa.
However, will he be remembered in the same breath as some of the Eagles’ all-time top strikers?
It seems unlikely.
At the end of the 2015-16 season, he’d scored 35 goals across the previous two campaigns—including 15 in the Prem—but was overlooked for the Olympic Games.
He led the line at the 2018 World Cup as Gernot Rohr’s side crashed out in the group stages, but subsequently received death threats after failing to find the net at the tournament.
It’s to Ighalo’s credit that he picked himself up, silenced the abusers, and clinched the Golden Boot at the 2019 Nations Cup six months later as the Eagles reached the final four.
It was arguably the last great act of a career in which Ighalo has scored goals aplenty in China and Saudi Arabia, but hasn’t truthfully been a threat in a major league since before his infamous 2016 goal drought.
Imagine if, when Ighalo had scored a double against Liverpool in a 3-0 victory in December 2015, and was duly rewarded with the Premier League’s Player of the Month award, you were told that he would only ever score three more goals in a major league during the rest of his career.
Yet that’s the reality.
Ighalo struck three league goals during the entirety of 2016, and by March 2017 was playing in the Chinese Super League.
Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
Of course, he got another chance in the Premier League—when he signed for his beloved United in one of the most unlikely African deals this century—but failed to score a single top flight goal during his time at Old Trafford.
That’s not to say he didn’t come close—he was unfortunate to encounter Jordan Pickford in inspired form when the Red Devils travelled to Goodison Park in spring 2020—while he also netted several important goals in the Europa League and FA Cup.
After his arrival being delayed due to Covid-19, Ighalo’s United career was then paused due to the pandemic, but was then extended until early 2021 after impressing for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
The forward was, however, ultimately let down by the club’s management when, after agreeing to extend his temporary spell at Old Trafford, United saw fit to sign Edinson Cavani.
Clearly, with the Uruguayan’s arrival, Ighalo’s minutes at the club, and ability to make an impact with the Red Devils, was all but diminished. His role as the veteran line leader and potential impact-maker off the bench was taken by the former Paris Saint-Germain man.
He played just nine minutes of league action during 2020-21, and only one minute in the Champions League, with Ighalo left essentially counting down the days until he’d be able to leave the club and get on with his career.
The fairytale had turned into something of a nightmare.
It was a similar story for poor Ighalo when he attempted to enjoy a final swansong with the Super Eagles.
The forward had hung up his international boots after the Nations Cup in 2019, going out on a high after clinching the Golden Boot.
However, with Gernot Rohr apparently keen to inject more experience in his team—alluding to a lack of faith in Ahmed Musa perhaps?—Ighalo was invited back in the dying embers of the German’s tenure.
Ultimately, Ighalo’s return came to naught.
He rejoined a squad that—on paper at least—had plentiful attacking options, failed to net in two appearances, and didn’t make it to the Nations Cup after Al Shabab allegedly blocked his prospects of joining up with the squad.
Understandably, Eagles fans didn’t take kindly to learning that Ighalo’s club had stood in the way of his international commitments, and it inevitably reflected badly on the striker, who was accused—perhaps through no fault of his own—of putting club ahead of country.
Who knows what difference Ighalo would have made in Cameroon; could he have given that talented Eagles team calm and composure in that decisive knockout game against Tunisia? Would he have taken the chance that Umar Sadiq sent carelessly wide?
We’ll never know, but, as with his golden ticket to Old Trafford, it felt like another major opportunity to make up for lost time had passed him by.
Ighalo deserves immense credit for, from a slow start, achieving all he has in the game, although there’s a lingering sense that it could—and perhaps should—have been so much more.
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