The former Nigeria international performed better than expected at Old Trafford, but he was never the long-term answer regardless of the coronavirus
As Harry Maguire headed in Manchester United’s second goal against Chelsea in their 2-0 Premier League away win in February, Odion Ighalo could be seen on the touchline celebrating like a fan.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had sent his deadline-day signing from the January window out to warm up ahead of his debut at Stamford Bridge, and the lifelong United supporter was – as he has since said in his own words – “living the dream”.
Questions were asked when a deal was struck for the former Watford man with just hours left of the January window. Despite the criticism, club sources believed it was a savvy move to help fill a void left by the injury to Marcus Rashford, United’s leading goalscorer this season.
January is a notoriously difficult time to do business and Solskjaer needed back-up for his strike force with Rashford facing months on the sidelines with a back fracture. The Nigerian was seen as a short-term solution to aid United’s injury problems.
The 30-year-old impressed in his eight appearances before Covid-19 forced the postponement of all football, scoring four goals in his three starts. One of those was a world-class finish against LASK in United’s final game before lockdown, He has also shown his ability as a team player, with his strong hold-up play and tireless work rate.
But that Europa League fixture against LASK looks likely to be the final time Ighalo competitively pulls on a United shirt, with his loan deal expiring at the end of May .
The postponement of the Premier League season has seen an agreement reached that enables clubs to temporarily extend the contracts of players whose deals are ending this summer to allow them to play until the season comes to an end, and United were open to keeping Ighalo past the end of his contract.
His parent club Shanghai Shenhua, however, feel that Ighalo is key for them, and due to their lack of squad depth they are keen to have him back for the resumption of the Chinese Super League season. Goal has learned that the Chinese side have offered the forward a new three-and-a-half year deal worth £400,000 a week in a bid to retain his services for the long term.
A six-month loan deal was thought to be good value for money by United chiefs back in January, but with the ex-Nigeria international looking likely to depart after just eight appearances it will be an unfortunate end to a deal that was starting to look like a decent piece of transfer business.
Shenhua, it is understood, are not against selling Ighalo to United on a permanent basis, but the English club are pursuing other options ahead of the transfer window reopening as they consider the added complications of what a post-Covid-19 window is going to look like.
Solskjaer has a recruitment plan as he sets about rebuilding his squad at Old Trafford, and while Ighalo was the right fit as a stop-gap to aid an injury problem, he does not fit with the criteria for the long-term process. The Norwegian wants players with the ‘X-factor’, with the perceived ideal age for a signing believed to be 23. Ighalo ticks neither box.
Lyon striker Moussa Dembele, 23, is on United’s radar, as is 24-year-old RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner, though a move for Tottenham striker Harry Kane has already been put on the back burner due to the huge transfer fee Spurs would demand. Any transfer of a player for hundreds of millions of pounds has been ruled out due to the economic climate brought on by the pandemic.
Werner has a buyout clause in his contract set at €60 million (£53m/$65m) which is due to expire on June 15, according to Sky Germany. He is thought to be keen on a move to Liverpool while Chelsea and Bayern Munich have also been credited with interest.
Dembele, meanwhile, has also attracted the interest of Chelsea and could be on the move when the window re-opens. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas admitted earlier this month that some members of his squad want to play European football next season. Lyon finished seventh in Ligue 1 when the season was cut short due to the coronavirus shutdown.
“We must recognise that this crisis will not disappear overnight and that the world that emerges will be different from how it was before,” United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward warned in the club’s investor call last week having already said it will not be “business as usual” in the transfer window.
United, like all other clubs, have been forced to alter their plans since the outbreak of the virus and its subsequent effects, but they do not need to drastically divert from the recruitment plan Solskjaer has been working on for the past 18 months. A permanent move for Ighalo is not in keeping with the structure the United boss wants to work with.
And with Shenhua not keen on Ighalo extending his loan spell in Manchester to allow him to complete the current season, it is looking likely his boyhood dream is coming to an end as Solskjaer’s striker search continues.