African All Stars

Odion Ighalo: Al Shabab striker's head-scratching conundrum

6:00 AM WAT 16/06/2021
Odion Ighalo of Manchester United
The birthday boy is obviously a step above Saudi football, but can he still thrive playing high-level action in Europe?

Was Odion Ighalo’s instant impact and subsequent success at Al Shabab really surprising?

The Nigerian’s had an impressive time since signing for the Saudi outfit at the turn of the year after a mildly successful stint at Manchester United and ended the campaign as the club’s joint-second top scorer.

Ighalo’s raw numbers make for fascinating viewing: nine goals in 13 appearances, with only 10 of those being starts. His return came from an average of just 65 minutes on the pitch, with a frequency of a goal every 94 minutes.

The West African’s poaching instincts particularly came to the fore in the White Lion’s league run-in, where he netted six times in his final four appearances last term as the Riyadh outfit ended the campaign in second place.

Throw in the two assists he had in that period into the mix and a goal contribution of eight in only four matches certainly adds even more gloss to an already outstanding strike rate.

A particularly noteworthy aspect of the ex-Super Eagle’s return was how he elevated the centre-forward position that had been a let-down before his arrival in February.

The pair of Abdullah Al-Hamdan and Makhete Diop had netted a combined seven times in the Saudi Pro League, but Ighalo went on to score higher than the Saudi and Senegalese combined.

Of course, there’s always the argument that Al Shabab may have won the league if the Nigerian began the season with the side as opposed to signing with the campaign past its halfway point.

This will never be proven, but there’s got to be a feeling that the frontman’s effectiveness in the final third could turn the club into champions next season for the first time since 2011/12.

The majority of the team’s goals came from midfield, with attacking midfielder Cristian Guanca netting 17 times for the Riyadh side, with the next best scoring eight fewer than the South American.

While Ighalo’s presence definitely increases Al Leith’s prospects, the 32-year-old’s exploits resurrect a previous debate that began when the centre-forward plied his trade in China.

With Changchun Yatai, there was a sentiment that Ighalo’s ability merited a higher level than the Chinese Super League, and his goalscoring numbers somewhat validated that claim.

Despite the Chinese side’s struggles as they battled and eventually succumbed to relegation in 2018, the African was in the hunt for the top scorer’s award for the majority of the campaign. The team’s overall struggles didn’t prevent him from scoring 21 times, six behind eventual winner Wu Lei who finished the campaign on 27 goals.

An opportunity of a lifetime with Manchester United gave Ighalo another shot at a major European club. Until the lockdown and arrival of Edinson Cavani in the summer, he had shown he could still play some sort of role in the major leagues.

His dream move may have ended on a rather underwhelming note, but the former Watford star’s profile means he can still cut it among the elite, even at 32.

Given that his game has never been based on explosive pace or acceleration, Ighalo’s prowess in the opponent’s box can still be harnessed by clubs around Europe.

Having said that, it’ll definitely be dependent on what the player wants in the twilight of his career. He’s guaranteed game time at Al Shabab, just as he was during his spell in China, and the obvious financial advantages of playing in the Middle East may be hard to ignore and prompt a desire to stay.

No European offer will probably match fulfilling his Man United dream last year, and the expected absence of first-team football if he does return anyway, suggest Ighalo may have reservations over departing Saudi Arabia, despite already hinting he’s a class above the league.

At 32, many will suggest the ex-Nigeria marksman still has something to offer in Europe, perhaps even hoping he strives for one last hurrah on the continent.

Unless something drastic changes, Ighalo’s unlikely to be seen in one of the top five divisions till he calls time on his career. While this may sadden observers, what truly matters is what the prolific man favours as he reaches the denouement of his playing days.