Scorned Odion Ighalo remains crucial to Super Eagles attack

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His continued inclusion has led to some backlash, but there simply is no denying the strategic importance of the China-based striker

COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter
 

Emotional judgements have no place in football.

This is a view often espoused in punishing underperformance, a sentiment which presages a drastic action. However, in the case of Odion Ighalo's continued involvement with the national team, it rather serves the opposite purpose.

His place in Gernot Rohr's latest Super Eagles squad is something of an affront to most, who stringently believe his race is run on the international stage. It is a harsh summation, although a sadly predictable one: is there a people more given to emotion than Nigerians?

In much the same way that it was decided that an unfortunate miss against Korea was enough to undo all that had come before with Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Ighalo's pair of misses against Argentina have been held up as proof positive that it is time to get rid.

Yakubu miss vs. South Korea

The circumstances of both players might be very different, but the response - a complete unwillingness to embrace wider context - has been exactly the same.

It's a good thing, however, that Rohr has stuck to his guns. Ighalo may not be the most prolific striker ever in a Super Eagles shirt - his record of four goals in 22 caps is pitiful - and at 29 he is not going to improve much more. However, the uncomfortable truth is this: he remains the best pure striker available to the national team.

This is not, as some might imagine, to say that he is great.

His aforementioned goal record is not simply a quirk, and while he might be tempted to point to a lack of central creativity in the set-up, Kelechi Iheanacho has already doubled his tally in fewer appearances. His style can be, and often is, quite predictable.

In spite of these, there is no other central striking alternative who, at this time, makes his exclusion a no-brainer. Ighalo wins almost by default.

Odion Ighalo

Iheanacho has an impressive goal tally, but remains a frustrating player purely because there is no consensus on precisely what he is.

Leading the line alone upfront may not require a hulking presence, but there is a degree of aggression and intensity required to engage with and trouble two centre-backs. The Leicester man simply does not have these elements yet.

Ahmed Musa remains lightning quick, as we saw at the World Cup, but lacks somewhat technically and does his best work in the open field rather than in tight spaces. He also does not link up play particularly well, neither is he consistent.

Simeon Nwankwo has his uses, but to utilize them would require a change in the way the team plays altogether; better a Plan B.

Henry Onyekuru seems to have the right profile, but has no experience leading the line solo, and it remains to be seen if he is as good at making space for himself with intelligent movement as he is taking advantage of it.Odion Ighalo

Casting the net a little wider offers no help either.

Junior Lokosa, who leads the league in scoring but is a quite limited poacher, has been inactive for three months, in which time he has failed multiple trials in Europe. Victor Osimhen and Taiwo Awoniyi, both great young hopes, are not ready—Osimhen's career has hardly taken off, and while Awoniyi is getting minutes at Gent, he remains very raw and unpolished.

The reasoning though, in the face of the facts, seems to be that anyone else would be preferable, which stretches the bounds of reasonableness considerably.

Lost in all the anger and fist-clenching is the fact that Ighalo actually played very well in that game against Argentina. In contrast to the effete efforts of Iheanacho, whose place he took, he offered good hold-up play, and did a much better job with his movement to offer support to Musa upfront.

Kelechi Iheanacho Nigeria 2018

The two misses got the most attention, but the former came after a darting run which Iheanacho simply would not have made, and drew a pretty good save from Franco Armani.

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The latter is less forgivable, but one could be charitable and allow that, in claiming a penalty for the ball ricocheting off Marcos Rojo's arm, he might have briefly taken his eye off the ball.

The misses proved fatal, granted, but even in his inefficiency, he showed just why he remains so valuable.

He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there simply is no one who renders him irrelevant.

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