When news spread that Odion Ighalo was forced off through injury in the 12th minute of Shanghai Greenland Shenhua’s encounter with Tianjin TEDA at the weekend, the apprehension was palpable for Nigerians.
And for obvious reasons too: the prolific frontman’s rich vein of form for Nigeria in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying saw him top the scorers chart with seven goals, with the hat-trick in a 4-0 success against Libya, as well as a brace against the same opponents in a 3-2 away victory standing out.
With the Afcon just over a month away, injury to a vital component of the Super Eagles won’t have gone down well. Following confirmation that the layoff isn’t as bad as first feared, and with the China-based forward’s inclusion in Gernot Rohr’s 25-man preliminary squad for the continental competition, fans can breathe easy.
It’s ironic that when the timeline of events are taken back a year, right after the World Cup in Russia, the mere mention of the forward’s name was met with so much vitriol and anger.
The frontman’s terrible miss against Argentina saw him strongly censured for the West African nation's elimination.
While the score at the time of the striker’s miss was enough to take them through, a goal would likely have made sure of progress to the round of 16. Ultimately, a late Marcos Rojo strike saw the Eagles beaten 2-1.
The irritation at Ighalo was likely due to the fact a run of one goal in five games in qualifying hadn’t endeared him to the nation’s supporters who felt a change was needed up front in Russia. Rohr didn’t budge, though, and his continued lack of goals in the worldwide showpiece increased the bitter criticism of the striker.
Where do people stand on Gernot Rohr's @NGSuperEagles squad released yesterday?— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) May 15, 2019
Naturally the striking options (ins & outs) will come under some scrutiny: Iheanacho (1 goal this season), Success (1), Simy (14), J. Ajayi (5), Onuachu (17), Tammy Abraham (26)....#Team9jastrong pic.twitter.com/9LfEDVXXZh
How he’s flourished, when it’d have been easy to wilt, after receiving a plethora of disgraceful abuse on social media is impressive, in the end showcasing his admirable mental fortitude.
In hindsight, credit ought to go to Rohr as well, given he didn’t lose faith in the frontman after the World Cup. The German tactician often gets stick for annoyingly persisting with under-performing players, but his trust in Ighalo, while it did take a long time, is starting to look like the right decision.
Nevertheless, the wily old manager only did half the work and it was the motivated attacker who still had to prove himself worthy of the striking berth by netting seven times in the next four games.
While there may still be some misgivings about him leading the line, the Shanghai Shenhua man remains Nigeria’s best option up front.
Kelechi Iheanacho has been poor for as long as anyone can remember, consistently disappointing in whatever position or role he’s played in.
The Leicester City man was dropped for the last internationals against the Seychelles and Egypt and, frankly, was a somewhat surprising inclusion in Rohr’s 25-man squad.
He’s not done anything noteworthy for the Foxes since March to justify his recall, and might be one of the two dropped if the final cut is picked on merit.
Midtjylland’s Paul Onuachu, however, gave as good as he got in his first Super Eagles start against Egypt in Asaba a couple of months ago. His magnificent early strike which proved to be the match-winner was worthy of deciding a football game.
The towering forward grew in confidence after his strike and showed he’s more than just an old-fashioned target man, evidenced by his good interplay and overall quality in possession.
Nevertheless, it’s highly unlikely the 24-year-old is given the responsibility of leading the line.
His relative inexperience at this level may not do him any favours too, coupled with the fact he doesn’t quite have the same chemistry with other teammates - compared to Ighalo.
Victor Osimhen, like Onuachu, is not likely to be thrust into the side by Rohr for the continental showpiece.
The Sporting Charleroi forward hasn’t gotten ample game time in recent call-ups either, so it reveals how much the German tactician believes the 20-year-old is ready.
That leaves Ighalo, whose form for club and country since his miserable World Cup has been extraordinary. Having scored 21 times in 28 appearances for relegated Changchun Yatai last season, he’s picked up right where he left off with the Flower of Shanghai, hitting seven goals in nine appearances before injury struck at his new club.
After disappointment in Russia, Ighalo probably wants to right the wrongs of last year’s global showpiece, and it’s a relief he’ll be fit to make amends in Egypt.