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Ighalo’s return: Does he still have anything to offer Nigeria’s Super Eagles?

5:06 PM IST 05/03/22
Odion Ighalo - Nigeria
The West African giants have insisted—once again—on recalling the veteran striker, but does he still have anything to offer?

Of the many subplots and talking points that accompanied the latest Nigeria squad announcement, the return—again—of Odion Ighalo is sure to get Super Eagles fans’ tongues wagging.

Read Ed Dove’s opinion below and then let us know in the comments section whether you’re glad to see Ighalo return, or whether it’s another misstep from the Nigeria Football Federation.

While there may be some portions of the fanbase who are excited about Ighalo’s return—as was the case when he made his first comeback under Gernot Rohr last year—expect the majority of Eagles supporters to question the wisdom of the decision to bring the 32-year-old back to the fold.

This is not to denigrate the attacker’s quality, nor his legacy with the national side.

Despite being a late bloomer at international level, Ighalo enjoyed a respectable career with Nigeria before his retirement, leading the line consistently during the early tenure of Rohr, and—memorably—winning the Golden Boot at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations as the Eagles won the bronze medal.

At times during that tournament, with Ighalo troubling defences and gobbling up chances, it appeared as though the West African giants could be primed to end their six-year wait for continental gold.

He was handed an unlikely opportunity to build on his form in Egypt in late 2021 when, despite calling time on his international career in mid 2019, he was invited back to the fold by Rohr and the NFF.

Back then, it was a questionable decision, with Ighalo performing consistently in the Saudi top flight—despite hardly setting the world alight—and Nigeria not needing another body up top.

Ultimately, the unexpected and unlikely withdrawals, pull-outs and absentees from the Nations Cup squad meant that, despite the wonky logic of recalling Ighalo in the first place, he actually could have proved a useful addition to the team that attempted to bring home the nation’s fourth continental crown.

What could have been a bizarre-decision-turned-good ultimately turned into a muddled irrelevance, as Ighalo too missed out on the tournament when his employers Al Shabab blocked him from participating. It was yet more unwanted confusion in the Eagles’ troubled build-up to the competition, and it’s to their credit that they prosecuted the group stage with such aplomb.

It could have been a memorable, nostalgic international swansong, perhaps, but having missed out on the Nations Cup, the page should have been turned—again—on Ighalo’s Eagles career.

Instead, he’s back, taking the space of a potential long-term prospect for the national side, and again looking worryingly like a square peg in a round hole.

The veteran striker returns to a squad full of quality attacking talent, with Augustine Eguavoen able to call upon a variety of options out wide and through the middle.

Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho should be the Eagles’ starting two forwards—and two of the first names on the teamsheet against Ghana—with the latter operating just off the former, flanked by two of the West Africans’ many options out wide.

A switch to 4-3-3—should Eguavoen wish to add in another midfielder—is the only tweak that could jeopardise Iheanacho’s participation, but that would hardly lead to greater opportunity or more minutes for Ighalo.

The veteran is unlikely to be competing for a berth out wide in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, particularly now that Dennis returns and Ademola Lookman has been added to the fold.

With Ahmed Musa, Samuel Chukwueze and Moses Simon all in the squad, there’s no scenario in which Ighalo will ever be required to compete with these players.

Instead, his role will either be as back-up option to Iheanacho or for Osimhen.

The evidence from the 1-1 draw against Cape Verde at the Teslim Balogun—the final match of 2021—was that Ighalo would take Iheanacho’s role, although he shouldn’t—as he did in that dour draw—supplant the Leicester City man.

Yet don’t Nigeria have better options for these roles?

While Sadiq Umar has retained his spot in the squad—despite the immense criticism he received during the Afcon—Taiwo Awoniyi has been dropped to the stand-by list, despite netting at the tournament in Cameroon.

While the Union Berlin man’s form has dipped recently, his 10 goals in the Bundesliga can’t be overlooked—how recently these days have we been able to celebrate a Nigerian striker hitting that many goals in a major European league?

He shouldn’t have been sacrificed to shoehorn Ighalo back into the side.

Paul Onauchu, a genuine Plan B for the national side—the kind of striker that African defences don’t like facing, particularly a Ghana team that struggled aerially against the Comoros—has also been dropped to the stand-by list.

Cyriel Dessers, Henry Onyekuru and Terem Moffi are all nowhere to be seen, even though, aged between 27 and 22, they can still be big contributors for the national side in their prime years to come.

Ighalo’s experience, finishing touch and recent form—albeit in a ‘lesser’ league in the Middle East—could yet be the difference between Nigeria making the World Cup and missing out, but yet again, it smacks of a short-term, blinkered, reactive selections, rather than the kind of coherent, consistent long-term strategy that leads to success down the line.