When Odion Ighalo’s name started filtering through on January transfer deadline day – with just a few hours until the window closed – many questioned what Manchester United were thinking.
Former professionals and pundits slammed the decision to bring in the former Watford striker on loan until the end of the season and debated why a 30-year-old, who had not played a minute of football for nearly eight weeks and had been plying his trade in China since 2017, was making a move to Old Trafford.
The move was viewed inside the club as a necessary transfer that made sense to try and fill the void left by Marcus Rashford, who is sidelined with a back injury, as United try to secure a top-four place in the Premier League and progress in the cup competitions. The thinking was that a six-month loan move represented good value for a player with Premier League experience and the forward is already proving his worth.
With seven appearances, including two starts, and three goals, the on-loan centre forward has already made an impact. Those fans who were unsure of the arrival of the former Nigeria international will have been heartened by his behaviour both on and off the pitch.
It has been no secret that Ighalo is a lifelong fan. He celebrated on the touchline during United’s league win over Chelsea last month, as Harry Maguire’s header doubled the lead to secure an important three points, and further endeared himself to the United faithful as well as his manager. The Norwegian has often spoken about the mentality of his players and the importance of ‘getting it’ and there can be no doubt that Ighalo has that spark Solskjaer is after.
He only made a seven-minute cameo in United’s Manchester derby victory at Old Trafford on Sunday but he left an instant impression with two recoveries, over 83 per cent passing accuracy and a clever flick that led to Scott McTominay’s goal. He was strong, determined and his work rate was imperious. If his previous six appearances had not justified the deadline day move those few minutes vindicated why United were right to make that last-minute loan deal with Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.
Solskjaer has already spoken about the possibility of making Ighalo’s move a permanent one but the forward has the opportunity to ensure cult hero status before his loan spell ends in the summer.
With Anthony Martial ruled out of the Europa League last 16 first-leg clash against Austrian side LASK on Thursday night – with the knock he picked up when he slid into the post against Manchester City on Sunday – it could pave the way for Ighalo’s third start. He has managed three goals on his previous two starts against Club Brugge and Derby and will be itching to add to his tally in Linz.
United go into the two-legged knockout tie as favourites but it won’t be an easy task despite Solskjaer’s side currently being in fine form and on a 10-game unbeaten run, their longest since the ex-striker first took the reins. LASK sit six points clear at the top of the Austrian Bundesliga and have conceded just 11 goals in all competitions this year.
United are the superior side but need to be composed if they are to take an advantage back to Old Trafford for the second leg next week and Ighalo could be key to that. In the group stage game against AZ in October, another game United were heavily backed to win, they failed to muster a shot on target. Things have improved since then but that drab night will serve as a reminder to Solskjaer and his staff going into Thursday night’s fixture.
Ighalo has already shown a composure in front of goal that was lacking during that group stage game. Against Derby, on his second start for the club, he was clinical. Four shots, three on target and two goals. Any striker in any league in the world would take that strike rate.
His work ethic and passion to succeed in addition to his personality and club allegiance have already made Ighalo a firm favourite for fans. But, if he can prove to be instrumental in the final few games of this season’s Europa League campaign and helped secure Champions League football for next season, the striker, who used to spend his lunch money watching United, could write himself into the history books for good.