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Odion Ighalo set to leave having taught Manchester United a valuable lesson

Ighalo’s loan spell expires at the end of the month

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Saturday 09 January 2021 09:02 GMT
Manchester United stiker Odion Ighalo
Manchester United stiker Odion Ighalo (Manchester United via Getty Images)

If this is to be Odion Ighalo’s last appearance as a Manchester United player, it will be a fitting swansong.  

This evening’s FA Cup third round tie against Watford could see Ighalo face the club at which he made his name as a serviceable Premier League striker, building a reputation which eventually led to last year’s fairytale move to his boyhood club.

“Me playing for Manchester United today, they saw what I did with Watford in the Premier League, that’s why I have the opportunity to be here today,” Ighalo told Watford’s official website this week.  

“My story would not be complete in my career, my life, without mentioning Watford.”

But in keeping with the last six months of Ighalo’s United career, he’s going to have to wait for his chance and it may not even come at all.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer let slip that while Ighalo will be part of the squad at Old Trafford this evening, he is only likely to start among the substitutes.

“Odion, it's special for him against Watford. He will be involved, he's in the squad, he's been training really well,” Solskjaer said. “Hopefully I don't need to put him on that we need goals, but hopefully he can join in.”

It will be the first time Ighalo has been named on United’s bench in domestic competition since the 4-1 win over Newcastle United back in October.

He has played one minute of football since then. His two starts came in the early rounds of the League Cup. Both ended in second-half substitutions. His only Premier League appearance was in the closing stages of the defeat to Crystal Palace in United’s first game of the season.

Add in the £6m loan fee to parent club Shanghai Shenhua, consider that United have covered a substantial proportion of Ighalo’s £300,000-a-week wages, and it is easy to question whether the decision to extend his stay was a costly mistake.

That ignores the position United were in at the time, though. Ighalo’s loan was extended at the end of May, while the Premier League was still in lockdown and finalising plans for Project Restart.

The transfer window was not open and United faced the prospect of playing a crucial run of games to decide Champions League qualification without cover for first-choice striker Anthony Martial.

Ighalo was available. Shanghai had initially been unwilling to extend his loan stay but uncertainty over the start of the Chinese Super League season and Ighalo’s visa eligibility softened that stance.  

What’s more, he deserved more opportunities. Four goals on his first three starts before lockdown was a perfectly adequate, pleasantly surprising return for a 30-year-old back-up striker.

And once an extension was agreed, Ighalo initially continued his run of scoring on every start with a goal in the FA Cup sixth round tie away to Norwich City.  

But after several underwhelming substitute appearances, and as United settled on a regular starting line-up post-lockdown, trust in Ighalo waivered. 

Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo (UEFA via Getty Images)

Even when he was scoring goals, there were poor misses against Chelsea and Everton. Solskjaer’s reluctance to call on him in the final stages of two closely-contested Europa League knock-out ties against Copenhagen and Sevilla in Cologne was telling.  

With just a game-and-a-half’s worth of minutes to his name this season, Ighalo has barely been seen since.

“It’s been difficult for him to be out of the squad as many times as he has because he did really well up until the summer,” Solskjaer said yesterday.  

“This season he's not had as many opportunities but he’s never let himself down as a professional and a human being. In training he always works hard and he’s been a positive influence in the dressing room.”  

Solskjaer even revealed that Ighalo had scored the most goals in United’s Friday morning round-robin sessions. That will not be enough to win another extension. Ighalo will return to Shanghai at the end of the month.  

If there is a valuable lesson to be learned from his year in Manchester, it is that last-minute emergency signings are best avoided if possible.  

United’s hand was forced somewhat by a back injury to Marcus Rashford, but another striker had been needed long before that January deadline day and the scramble for Ighalo’s signature in its final hours.

Things were not so hurried a few months ago for the signing of Edinson Cavani, who appears to be a far more dependable back-up. And this January, it seems unlikely that United will be forced into another late rush.

Even so, Ighalo arrived, did the job required of him and at one point came close to achieving cult hero status. He is deserving of a send-off in a game between two clubs close to his heart.

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