July 24, 2021

Ighalo: Forgotten Manchester United man needs Europa League to salvage season

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The on-loan frontman was seldom used in the Red Devils’ Premier League run-in, and could very well face the same issues in Europe

All the buzz that Odion Ighalo’s extended stay at Manchester United generated at the start of June has slowly faded in the last two months owing to the striker’s lack of appearances.

Having played a somewhat significant part in the FA Cup and Europa League before the lockdown, the Shanghai Shenhua loanee had little play time after the restart. The Nigerian got only 61 minutes on the pitch despite the intense scheduling in the Red Devils’ Premier League run-in, which may have disappointed supporters of the former Watford man.

In truth, while there was always the understanding that Ighalo wouldn’t be first choice, especially after Marcus Rashford’s return gave the team more attacking options, those willing the striker on hoped he’d get some time on the pitch given the frenzied run of matches.

Admittedly, he had barely featured in the Prem before football’s suspension in March but circumstances as regards scheduling of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team’s remaining nine games, played within five weeks from mid-June to late July, meant he was a viable option in some fixtures.

However, the ex-Nigeria frontman was at a disadvantage when it became obvious the club’s Norwegian boss was throwing all he had into Man United’s fight to end in the top four. This was ultimately accomplished as the red half of Manchester ended joint-third just above Chelsea on goal difference.

Indeed, Solskjaer took huge risks choosing to start the same XI for five games on the trot against Sheffield United, Brighton & Hove Albion, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Southampton, risking burnout in their run-in. Ighalo got cameos in four of those games, before being an unused substitute in the team’s 2-2 draw with the Saints at Old Trafford.

It was significant that in the quartet of brief appearances, United had established unassailable leads thus allowing the 1999 Champions League winner rest his key players. When the going got tough, however, he was reluctant to turn to the Nigerian and other fringe players indicating a worry in the drop-off in quality between the starters and substitutes.

The threat of fatigue told in their performances toward the end of the season as United tended to start slowly before their superior quality eventually saw them overpower the opposition. They conceded early against the Cherries before winning 5-2 and the woodwork saved them from falling behind at Villa Park in their 3-0 success.

They didn’t quite get lucky against Southampton while Crystal Palace were in the game at Selhurst Park in the opening exchanges, were hard done by as VAR ruled out Jordan Ayew’s equalizer in the 56th minute for the most marginal of offside calls before Anthony Martial made it 2-0 with 12 minutes to play.

Despite his side’s laboured showing vs the Eagles, Solskjaer’s lack of trust in Ighalo and co. on the bench was evident as he made only two changes all game. Still, the West African frontman was to endure the most painful snub days later in the FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea.

Having hinted with his changed line-up that a top four spot was the priority, the ex-United striker left the experienced forward out of the XI at Wembley, only introducing the 31-year-old 10 minutes from time. At the time, the Red Devils trailed 3-0 having just conceded the third but found a late consolation strike in the 3-1 defeat.

There was opprobrium directed at Ole in the media which seemed odd as the criticism didn’t seem nuanced enough to take into consideration that, despite the appeal of a trophy, ending in the Champions League positions was the main goal for the Red Devils.

Having missed out this season, the Manchester giants could ill-afford successive years outside the top four. Also, the Norwegian’s lack of rotation in previous games left him with little choice but to tweak his selection against Frank Lampard’s troops, who were at full strength.

Expectedly, Ighalo didn’t start against West Ham United and Leicester City. Regardless of an insipid showing against the Hammers, the ex-Super Eagle was uninvolved until the 85th minute as it ended 1-1 and didn’t get a look in against the Foxes till deep into second-half stoppage time.

In truth, that was par for the course given Solskjaer’s prime concern post-lockdown but his selections for the resumption of the Europa League will fascinate the average observer.

Again, the enforced change to the format of the competition may not necessarily be to Ighalo’s benefit. While he’s expected to start against LASK on Wednesday, where United already hold a 5-0 lead, the on-loan frontman may then be restricted to watching briefs as the team’s heavy-hitters are called upon in the latter stages of Europe’s second-tier competition.

Had the pandemic not disrupted the season, the Nigerian was likely to play a huge role as the Red Devils chased success in a competition they won in 2017. With the deviation from the usual weekend-Thursday-Sunday scheduling, replaced with this year’s tweaked design it remains to be seen if the Shanghai Shenhua loanee will play a leading role.

However, if Solskjaer takes an unexpected route with his selection and trusts Ighalo to lead the line in Europe, it’ll give the marginalised man a chance to rescue what was once an uplifting loan spell.