Surprising as it may seem now, when Manchester United announced the loan signing of Odion Ighalo from Shanghai Shenhua during the winter transfer window, there was actually plenty of vocal criticism of the move amongst fans on social networks.
Many questioned what this 30-year-old journeyman striker could offer, beyond being considered little more than a stopgap addition to the squad, covering for Marcus Rashford while he recovered from injury. While that kind of reaction was hardly surprising, especially given how frustrating transfer policy at Old Trafford has been for some time now, the doubters were perhaps a little too swift with their criticism on this occasion.
Since his arrival, it’s fair to say that opinions have changed. Following numerous interviews with UK media outlets such as Sky Sports, it has now become abundantly clear just how much Ighalo appreciates his opportunity to play for Manchester United. This guy has dreamed about playing for the Red Devils all his life, although given the path of his career to date, it’s a chance that he never expected to materialise.
Now that it has, Ighalo is relishing every moment with passion and enthusiasm that fans can’t help but admire. What’s more, Ighalo has proven that rather than just being here to make up the numbers, he’s here to make a genuine contribution to the team he loves so dearly. Whether it’s in the starting eleven or appearing from the bench, his only thought is helping wherever he can.
Initial appearances were somewhat fleeting and Ighalo seemed to play little more than a cameo role. His debut came in stoppage time of the 0-2 Premier League win at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, although given the smile on his face at the final whistle, you’d have thought he’d just won the title. The next brief outing of 23 minutes came in the frustrating 1-1 draw at Club Brugge in the Europa League, followed by 10 minutes on the pitch against former club Watford, who United comfortably brushed aside 3-0 at Old Trafford.
Looking at the EPL relegation odds on betting exchanges, Watford still remain among the favourites to go down. Given how popular he was during his time at Vicarage Road, fans of the Hornets would have dearly loved Ighalo to return there during the winter transfer window. However, there was no denying the Nigerian international his dream opportunity to finally pull on the red shirt of Manchester United. Although he’d offered glimpses of what he could offer, linking up well with those around him, all he now lacked was that first goal.
Handed his first appearance in the starting eleven by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the 5-0 demolition of Club Brugge in the Europa League not only sealed United’s passage to the next round of the competition, it showcased what Ighalo truly has to offer. Although it was an inspired performance and brace of goals from Brazilian midfielder Fred which dominated the headlines, Ighalo had also justified his starting appearance with his first goal for the club and a quality display throughout the game.
After another brief substitute appearance in the 1-1 draw at Everton in the Premier League, his next introduction to the starting eleven brought more goals. All the talk before the FA Cup duel with Derby County was about Wayne Rooney, now playing for the Rams, yet it was Ighalo who put in a superb shift for United, scoring a brace of goals and walking away with the Man of the Match award.
Ighalo might have been hoping to play a few more minutes in the Manchester derby against City, yet all he cared about was that his team triumphed on the day. Another chance to start would come, and it did in the Europa League against LASK. United utterly demolished their Austrian opponent away from home, and although the game was played behind closed doors at the Linzer Stadion, Ighalo treated fans watching on TV to his full repertoire of tricks.
Indeed, it was Ighalo who opened the scoring with an absolute beauty after the ball was deftly chipped his way by Bruno Fernandes. The Nigerian took three touches, juggling the ball between his feet before letting it drop to the ground amidst four defenders on the edge of the area, then unleashed a rocket into the top left-hand corner which the rival keeper had no chance of stopping. After hitting the woodwork and providing an assist for Daniel James, there was another Man of the Match award in the bag for Ighalo.
As we wait for football to resume once more and amidst talk of a permanent move for Ighalo, it’s fair to say the talented Nigerian striker has already proven his worth. If his passion for the club doesn’t convince the most sceptical of fans, then what they see on the pitch must surely be enough. Ighalo has demonstrated excellent close control and a keen eye for goal, matched by vision and creativity when working with those around him.
Hopefully, we’ll get to see the beaming smile of Ighalo for at least a few more years to come. His journey to reach the Theatre of Dreams may have been unorthodox, but now that he’s here, this is a player who deserves to stay.