Narrowly on the inside of the box, the ball brought down with the right foot, juggled onto the left and back again, finally allowing it to touch the turf to set up a half-volley that launched itself into the back of the net, made more exquisite with the satisfying amplified sound of the slight connection with the underside of the bar in the empty Raiffeisen Arena.
And with that, Odion Ighalo had opened the scoring in what became a comprehensive 5-0 Manchester United domination of Linzer Athletik-Sport-Klub on the Austrian side’s own patch, the striker’s best goal yet in the colours of his boyhood club, a thing of beauty that Gary Lineker declared "deserved a crowd" to witness.
A crowd that would have no doubt been chanting their now well-rehearsed, current climate insensitive ‘Viva Ighalo’ song, as the Nigerian steadily works his way to cult-hero status.
In the Europa League tie, however, Ighalo was far from done, assisting teammate Daniel James for the second goal, and once again profiting from the majestic Bruno Fernandes who had provided his first, a perfectly flicked on through ball that Ighalo was unlucky to see rebound off the post. Consequently, Odion Ighalo received 50% of the fan vote following his eccentricities that aided the route to be awarded Man of the Match, another marker to prove the doubters who treated his acquisition with cynicism wrong.
With Marcus Rashford out of action with a back injury, Ighalo arrived on January deadline day on loan from Chinese Super League side Shanghai Greenland Shenhua F.C. Though in his previous tenure in the Premier League he became the only Watford player to ever win a Player of the Month award (December 2015), Ighalo hadn’t been in England for three years, ending his spell with the Hornets with a half-season contribution of just a single league goal, failing to find the net in any of his last 15 games.
Skip forward to January 2020. Ighalo was now arriving back on the wrong side of 30, widely treated by sceptics as something of a last resort, a dubious and unenthusiastically received transfer that perhaps reflected how far Manchester United had floated behind their rivals. Statement of intent it was not. Mario MandÅ¾ukiÄ and Josh King had already been linked to fill the Rashford-shaped hole, preceded by rumours that even former hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic could potentially make a return before going back to his old stomping ground at AC Milan.
In the space of six weeks and eight games - only two of which he’s been given the full ninety minutes - Ighalo has already outscored his tally in his last season on English pastures before heading East. Every time he has so far started for Manchester United he has scored.
In just over five weeks, he now has four goals for the club. For a man who has been unabashed about his enduring passion for the club, the feeling Ighalo must be currently experiencing is indelible, the reciprocal relationship between the forward and the fans easing him into life at the most successful club in English football.
“Ighalo scores, we’re on the pitch” was jokingly renditioned as he came on in his second Premier League game for Manchester United, against his old club Watford at Old Trafford. It’s not so much of a joke anymore.
Ighalo, who moved to China initially in 2017 to Changchun Yatai for £20million, had taken a pay cut to make his dream move to Manchester United a reality. Hailing from Lagos, he is the first Nigerian to play for Manchester United and is the eighth African footballer to become a Red Devil. In United’s best run of form for over a year, across a ten-match unbeaten run, to which Ighalo has contributed, there’s a smile etched on his face whenever he walks off the pitch.
“I’m very happy,” Ighalo said in his first interview after arriving at Man Utd, “It's just like a dream come true for me, because I know many people used to say when they join a team, they say that they dream of playing for that team. Mine was not the case. I supported the team when I was young. People that know me, even back in Nigeria, and even when I was playing at Watford, my team-mates knew that I loved Man United, I support them. When I played against Man U, that emotion is there, because it is my dream. It is a nice reality, so I’m very happy.”
His manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has also praised his contribution since his arrival in January, and the biggest suggestion yet that this temporary housing at the Theatre of Dreams could become a permanent one: “Odion has come in really well and he will improve and get better,” said Solskjaer in the LASK aftermath, “But he has qualities we saw in him and needed and we need those qualities for next season.”
Though the season may now be on hold, upon resumption if Ighalo’s eye for goal and maximum effort is unabating, a permanent deal for a player widely thought of to have been procured won’t seem so silly...