Ighalo and CavanIGoal

Ighalo at Man United: Cavani arrival leaves forward in tricky position

Odion Ighalo’s extended time at Manchester United wasn’t supposed to end like this...or perhaps the writing was always on the wall but supporters of the Nigeria forward were too emotional to realise it months ago.

The story of the retired Super Eagle’s Deadline Day move to boyhood club in January sparked so much fanfare and goodwill, while his subsequent efficiency in the cup competitions lifted the mood around the club — although Bruno Fernandes’ instant impact largely contributed to the feel-good factor at Old Trafford at the time.

However, then came the imposed lockdown in March owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

When it looked likely that the forced hiatus to football across Europe would be extended, the signs were clear that Ighalo wouldn’t play often upon the sport’s return.

Even though this was predicted months ago, there was a sense that the Shanghai Shenhua loanee deserved to finish the season at Old Trafford, thus signing off on what was seemingly an elating ‘dreams do come true’ tale. Man United obliged, extending his loan deal to January 2021, but the return of Marcus Rashford, as well as other injured heavy-hitters, meant the West African was unlikely to get minutes.

This proved to be the case as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leaned on a select few after the Premier League restarted in June, for better or worse. Admittedly, this worked a treat with results going the giants’ way. However, they tailed off in the final gameweeks and seemed to be running on fumes.

Odion Ighalo Manchester UnitedGetty Images

The biggest ignominy — for lack of a better word — came in the Red Devils’ FA Cup exit against Chelsea in the semi-final, where the Norwegian didn’t leave room for the ex-Watford frontman in the XI despite resting four of his preferred starters.

Ighalo was only introduced with 11 minutes remaining — for context: United were 3-0 down at the time with the game unsalvageable, barring a turnaround akin to Liverpool’s unbelievable comeback vs AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005 — probably confirming the lack of trust in the Nigerian.

Consequently, this led to feeling that nothing would improve in the much-changed Europa League format in August as regards significant time on the pitch. This was proved right as the on-loan marksman played three paltry minutes in the one-off games in Germany.

Fast forward to the start of 2020/21, having played just nine league minutes and having to rely on the EFL Cup for match action, the club has signed former Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani on a free transfer.

While the reaction to the move has been mixed, the logic behind the transfer needs to be understood.

If the Red Devils always had the South American frontman as a stop-gap option from the get-go, with the plan being to swoop if they couldn’t acquire their top targets, then Cavani joining Man United temporarily makes sense — they add a live body and will attempt to bring in their primary options in January or next summer.

Edinson Cavani PSG Paris Saint-Germain 2019-20Getty Images

However, if this is a panic buy — the club didn’t consider going for the 33-year-old as a primary target, an alternative or last resort until recently — then the opprobrium directed at the board from supporters isn’t an overreaction as it shows a discouraging lack of planning and seriousness.

As for Ighalo, where does the arrival of the six-time Ligue 1 winner leave him?

In truth, despite Cavani’s advanced years (he’s two years older than the Nigerian), he remains a step above the former Nigeria international and arguably even superior to current number nine, Anthony Martial.

Perhaps the club hopes the South American would have the same impact as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who thrived in 2016/17, despite joining the club at 34 following the expiration of the Swede’s contract at, wait for it, PSG.

Zlatan scored 17 times — seventh in the Prem — and recoded 22 goal contributions — the ninth highest in the top flight — proving that age is nothing but a number.

Jose Mourinho’s United may have struggled for results in the league to end sixth but the self-assured forward proved his worth.

Edison Cavani - Zlatan IbrahimovicGetty Images

Be that as it may, the fact Cavani arrives from PSG like the current AC Milan striker in his thirties is where the comparisons end. The Uruguay star joins Man United having suffered niggling injuries and fitness issues in his final year in Paris, causing him to start only seven of PSG’s 27 Ligue 1 games before the 19/20 season was curtailed.

Also, having not played a competitive fixture since March 11, it may take a while to get the now injury-prone forward up to speed before he’s ready to feature for Solskjaer’s side.

There’s a caveat, though: Martial’s straight red card in Sunday’s 6-1 humiliation vs Tottenham Hotspur might tempt the United boss to risk throwing Cavani in immediately before the Frenchman’s expected league return in early November.

This scenario may not come to pass, but dropping lower in the pecking order may not sit well with Ighalo. Still, with only three months left on his loan spell in Manchester, terminating his loan early as some have suggested makes no sense now even though he’s likely third-choice out-and-out striker at the club and probably fifth-choice attacker in the side.

An encouraging start to life at his boyhood club hasn’t panned out as Ighalo may have imagined. Despite the underwhelming, inconspicuous climax to his dream move, the Nigerian should have no regrets even though he may have wanted a different ending to what was initially a beautiful story.