Al-Hilal did not become the most successful team in the history of Asian football by letting the grass grow under their feet. Just days after the reigning Saudi Arabian 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, Kevin Keegan, the manager of selling club Newcastle United, stood on the steps outside the team’s stadium and explained to disgruntled fans why he had allowed the deal to go through. Now, Al-Shabab supporters similarly will be wondering at the wisdom of letting Ighalo, joint top scorer in the league so far this season, go.
For Al-Hilal, it is 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 was felt that his powers and impact were starting to wane. Ighalo is six years younger and has found the target three more times to sit joint top of the goal-scoring charts this season.
It remains to be seen how much of an improvement the Nigerian proves to be over the Frenchman, who will always be 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 look to have strengthened ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup, which kicks off on Thursday. Al-Hilal are in action three days later against either Al-Jazira of the UAE or Tahiti’s A.S. Pirae. The winner goes on to face European champions Chelsea, a clash that will be eagerly 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 appeal to Ighalo. There are those, especially in Nigeria, who feel that the fact the player was forced to miss out on the African Cup of Nations was one reason behind the move to Al-Hilal. Al-Shabab refused to release the striker, the top scorer during the 2019 competition, claiming that the Nigerian Football Federation had missed the deadline for calling him up.
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 games since. This is not the kind of form that wins championships, especially with the top two, Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr, winning match after match. Leonardo Jardim’s men are now 10 points off the summit with 13 games remaining. There is still time to close the gap but not much, especially with the Tigers in such great form.
It is true that Al-Hilal are not the free-scoring team they were last season, when they averaged two goals a game. So far this season, the number is 1.45, which is quite a drop-off. Yet it is more a case of the team not creating as many chances — certainly not as many clear chances — than the strikers being wasteful.
It could be that Jardim will play Ighalo alongside Moussa Marega in attack. While on paper this looks like a formidable strike force, not much will change if the supply is not there. That is now a challenge for Jardim and his new signing.
Fans of Al-Shabab, meanwhile, are perhaps entitled to feel a little upset. After all, their star striker has joined a team below them in the league. It does not say much for the club’s title ambitions that they are selling their top scorer to a local rival, and one that also still has eyes on the championship.
It is true that three draws in the last three games have resulted in Al-Shabab slipping down to third place but they are still only seven points behind the leaders, albeit having played a game more.
Al-Shabab have 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 goal-scoring record in Asia but will have to hit the ground running if he is to help his new team return to winning ways in Saudi Arabia.
It remains to be seen what Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr make of all this. It is likely that the top two view Al-Hilal as a greater danger than Al-Shabab and so are unlikely to be delighted about the joint top scorer in the league making the move across Riyadh.
Time will also tell how it all plays out. It might well be that Ighalo bags a few more goals but cannot reignite Al-Hilal’s title challenge, and that Al-Shabab will not miss him too much and so will have few regrets.
But if the former Manchester United striker does help to shoot the champions up the standings while his former club drops down, then this could prove to be a season-changing move.