Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 13 December 2019

Odion Ighalo: Nigeria's Afcon hero who once said no to playing for Barcelona

The striker has scored five goals in Egypt, something that will not have surprised Granada and Watford

Not many players can claim to have turned down Barcelona in their career.

Odion Ighalo is one of the few to have said no to overtures from Camp Nou.

The striker is on the verge of finishing the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt as top scorer after netting his fifth goal in Wednesday's 1-0 win over Tunisia that secured third place for Nigeria.

Algerians Riyad Mahrez and Adam Ounas, as well as Senegal's Sadio Mane, are all on three goals going into Friday's final in Cairo and one of them would have to net at least twice to deny Ighalo sole ownership at the top of the standings.

The 30 year old's purple patch will be of little surprise to those familiar with his history.

When he is at his peak he can be prolific, as fans of Granada and Watford can attest.

Since 2017 he has plied his trade in China, first with Changchun Yatai and currently with Shanghai Shenhua.

But what went under the radar was that Barcelona came calling for Ighalo at the start of the year, looking to boost their striking options for the second half of the campaign as they sought to retain their La Liga title and win the Uefa Champions League for the first time since 2014.

His goalscoring efforts in China, where he had netted 21 for a Changchun side that were relegated from the Chinese Super League, stand out alongside his proven record in Spain and England.

The only issue was that Ighalo was not interested in playing a back-up role to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Rather then move back to Europe he instead chose to remain in China and join Shanghai, where he has seven goals in nine games to date.

Ighalo was forthright at the time on why he had said no to the Spanish giants.

He told the BBC in February: "It was meant to be a six-month loan and strictly as a back-up striker. It was nice to hear that Barcelona were interested and any footballer would be more than happy to take it.

"But with due respect I had just finished as the second top scorer in China with 21 goals, I deserve better and didn't want to be a short-term player somewhere.

We rejected it, it was an easy decision to make and I chose to stay in China."

It is likely that Ighalo's impressive efforts for Nigeria in Egypt could attract more potential suitors to challenge his commitment to playing in China long term.

Only one of his strikes came in the group stages, with his double against defending champions Cameroon in the last 16 standing out as his big moment.

While it was his past La Liga experience with Granada that reportedly interested Barcelona, they would have also been aware of the problems he caused some of the big sides in the Premier League with Watford.

He was integral to Watford's promotion to England's top flight in 2014-15, netting 20 goals in the Championship, 16 of which came between January and April.

He was then top scorer in the 2015-16 Premier League season with 15 goals, with Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur among the sides he scored against.

The interesting thing about that campaign was that 13 of those goals came before the end of 2015. He even won the Premier League Player of the Month for December 2015.

His form tailed off in 2016, however, and after only scoring once in the league in the 2016-17 campaign he departed for China. He has re-found his goal touch in China and that has now transformed itself over to Nigeria.

Five goals was not enough for Nigeria to become champions of Africa but it could be the catalyst for their goalscoring hero to become a transfer target again.

But teams interested in him will look to learn from Barcelona's mistake. Ighalo does not do being a "back-up". And given his efforts in Egypt teams would be unlikely to think of using him in that role.

Updated: July 18, 2019 09:58 PM