Why March was Odion Ighalo's month
You’ve heard the arguments as to why Bruno Fernandes and Fred should be crowned March Player of the Month, and you’ll get another piece stating Harry Maguire’s case tomorrow.
But I think Odion Ighalo has a greater claim to the prize than all three.
In a truncated month where, admittedly, United only played four games, the Nigerian was our leading goalscorer, notching three times in his two starts, against Derby County in the Emirates FA Cup and LASK in the Europa League.
There were also brief but bountiful cameo appearances at Goodison Park and in the Manchester derby, as the on-loan striker started to edge himself towards that special category of ‘cult fan favourites’ Old Trafford revellers hold so dear. Think Diego Forlan, Henrik Larsson and Mark Robins.
It’s so easy to forget that Odion arrived in Manchester short of match practice. A reminder, too, that he didn’t even meet the rest of his team-mates until they’d returned from a mid-season training camp in Marbella.
I interviewed the Nigerian at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, in the run-up to the Derby and City clashes, and he told me he was still taking things slowly.
“Don’t forget I came from China,” Ighalo said. “I’ve not played a competitive game since December. I last played 90 minutes in November.
“England is faster, it’s sharper and [Ole Gunnar Solskjaer] knows about all this. It’s okay to go bit by bit until I get to that level.”
If March qualifies as ‘bit by bit’ for Ighalo, I’m looking forward to seeing what he might produce when it’s safe for football to resume.
The month started with a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park, during which Ighalo replaced Mason Greenwood, with the Reds level but fighting to save a point in the face of a second-half Toffees’ onslaught.
Even so, the Nigerian could have netted a late winner, only to see his snapshot brilliantly saved by the legs of Jordan Pickford.
Four days later, we travelled to Derby in the FA Cup and, although much of the pre-match focus was on former Red Wayne Rooney, it was to be Odion’s night at Pride Park.
After Luke Shaw had crashed home to give United the lead, Ighalo took control, evading the challenges of several Rams’ defenders prior to slotting in.
He then added a second close to the end as the Reds rolled through to a sixth consecutive quarter-final – a run that is now unmatched in club history.
Although he was only on the pitch for mere minutes, Ighalo further warmed himself to the M16 faithful in our memorable Manchester derby win.
With United seeking to protect our one-goal lead, Odion demonstrated all the attributes you want from a centre forward, including strength to hold off Fernandinho and awareness to slow down play and maintain possession.
Plus, who can forget him jumping for joy after Scott McTominay’s incredible 40-yarder?
How Ighalo made a big impact against City
Odion Ighalo only entered the action on 88 minutes, yet he made crucial contributions to the win! Check him out...
In our final outing of the month, in the eerie surroundings of the empty Linzer Stadion, Ighalo then netted his finest goal yet for the Reds.
Receiving a chipped pass from Fernandes on his right foot, the 30-year-old juggled it on to his left, then back to his right before switching feet again to launch a rocket into Alexander Schlager’s top right-hand corner.
That strike set us on the way to a 5-0 win which ensures we have one foot in the Europa League quarter-finals, when they go ahead.
Of course, football is suspended for at least the next few weeks, but with Anthony Martial an injury doubt for at least the postponed visit to Spurs and Marcus Rashford still recovering from a back problem, it looked as if Ighalo had done everything he could in March to establish himself as United's first-choice forward.
And that, coupled with the fact Fernandes has got enough awards to keep him going for a while, is why he gets my nod for Player of the Month.
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