Odion Ighalo’s transfer to Al-Hilal could be a turning point in the Saudi Pro League season
Al-Hilal did not become the most successful team in Asian football history by letting the grass grow under their feet. Just days after the reigning Saudi champions released star striker Bafetimbi Gomis, they announced the arrival of Odion Ighalo in a move that could have major repercussions for the title race.
When Manchester United suddenly signed Andy Cole in January 1995, Newcastle United’s selling club manager Kevin Keegan stood on the steps outside the team’s stadium and told disgruntled fans why he had authorized the agreement. Now Al-Shabab supporters will also be questioning the wisdom of letting go of Ighalo, the league’s co-top scorer so far this season.
For Al-Hilal, it’s a no-brainer – assuming they were right to let Gomis go in the first place. The Frenchman still scores goals and has done so nine times so far this season, but at the age of 36 it felt like his powers and impact were starting to wane. Ighalo is six years younger and has found the target three more times to sit top of the scoring charts this season.
It remains to be seen how much the Nigerian improves over the Frenchman, who will forever remain an Al-Hilal legend for his performances, goals and attitude during his three and a half years with the club.
In the short term, the Saudi champions appear to have strengthened ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup, which kicks off on Thursday. Al-Hilal is in action three days later against Al-Jazira from the United Arab Emirates or AS Pirae from Tahiti. The winner will face European champions Chelsea, a clash that will be highly anticipated in Saudi Arabia.
The prospect of playing in such a tournament, and a potential chance to test himself against one of the best defenses in the world, will surely please Ighalo. There are those, especially in Nigeria, who believe that the fact that the player was forced to miss the Africa Cup of Nations was one of the reasons behind the move to Al-Hilal. Al-Shabab refused to release the striker, top scorer in the 2019 competition, saying the Nigeria Football Federation had missed the deadline to call him.
As exciting as the Club World Cup is, whether Ighalo can make a difference domestically is a bigger question. Al-Hilal won their fourth Asian title in November but have collected just 12 points in eight domestic matches since. It’s not the kind of form that wins championships, especially with the top two, Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr, winning game after game. Leonardo Jardim’s men are now 10 points off the top with 13 games to go. There is still time to close the gap but not that much, especially with the Tigers in such great shape.
It is true that Al-Hilal are not the goalscoring team they were last season, when they averaged two goals per game. So far this season, the number is 1.45, which is quite decreasing. Still, this is more of a case of the team not creating as many chances – certainly not as many clean-cut chances – as it is squandering forwards.
Jardim could play Ighalo alongside Moussa Marega in attack. Although on paper it looks like a formidable strike force, not much will change if the supply isn’t there. It is now a challenge for Jardim and his new recruit.
Al-Shabab fans, meanwhile, may be entitled to feel a little upset. After all, their star striker joined a team below them in the league. It doesn’t say much for the club’s title ambitions that they sell their top scorer to a local rival, and who also still have their eyes on the Championship.
It is true that three draws in the last three games have dropped Al-Shabab to third place, but they are still only seven points behind the leaders, despite having played one game more.
Al-Shabab has already brought in a replacement: John Mary. The Cameroon striker was last seen on loan at Avispa Fukuoka in Japan. The 28-year-old has a decent goalscoring record in Asia but will need to put in the work if he is to help his new side find their way back to winning ways in Saudi Arabia.
It remains to be seen what Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr think of all this. It is likely that the front two view Al-Hilal as a greater danger than Al-Shabab and therefore are unlikely to be pleased with the league’s co-top scorer moving through Riyadh.
Time will also tell how it all plays out. It may well be that Ighalo scores a few more goals but can’t revive Al-Hilal’s title challenge, and Al-Shabab won’t miss it too much and therefore have few regrets.
But if the former Manchester United striker helps lift the champions up the table while his former club fall, it could prove to be a season changer.