Ighalo or Aurier: Who will have bigger impact in Champions League chase?

The Nigerian striker continues to live the dream in Manchester, while the Spurs man seeks to correct a mistaken impression in top four hunt

Football is back. After 100 days, the Premier League returned on Wednesday with Sheffield United vs Aston Villa and Manchester City vs Arsenal. The major subplot in the latter was Mikel Arteta returning to face old club and mentor Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium.

In a way, that fixture served as a prelude to Friday night’s encounter between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, a game inundated with subplots of its own. The major one, of course, being Jose Mourinho welcoming his old side to his new home in North London.

Somewhat buried beneath that, from an African perspective at least, is the satisfaction of seeing Odion Ighalo still in a Man United shirt. The Nigerian, who turned 31 on Tuesday, was hours from seeing a dream spell at Old Trafford end as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side couldn’t reach an agreement with Shanghai Shenhua over an extension to his initial four-month loan which was due to expire on May 31.

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However, at the very death in what seemed like one of those dramatic moments on television, it was announced both sides had struck a deal. As it is, the boyhood United fan will live his dream for another eight months till January 2021.

In a sense, it seems fitting that Ighalo’s potential first appearance since the extension was confirmed is against Spurs, the club he could have joined instead on Deadline Day. It’s no longer news that Mourinho, dealing with injuries to Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, attempted to bring the Nigerian frontman to north London but the ex-Watford man opted for Solskjaer’s side instead.

Sentiments aside, it seemed odd at the time that the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations top scorer chose Old Trafford over the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium owing to the likelihood of getting more playing time in London.

Piece on @GoalcomNigeria: Should Ighalo have put sentiment aside, shunned Manchester United and opted for Tottenham Hotspur?
A bit of a spoilsport, but here goes..#EVEMUN #TOTWOL https://t.co/y5wJjNknxJ

— Seye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) March 1, 2020

Be that as it may, football’s suspension and subsequent returns for Kane and Son mean he probably won’t have enjoyed a sustained period as the default frontman for the two-time Champions League winner – although, there was no way events could have been predicted at the time.

Months after snubbing the Lilywhites, Ighalo could now play against them, in an attempt to put a dent in their hopes to play in next season’s Champions League.

‘What a difference a few months make’ could be the theme if the home side manages to win on Friday night. Despite being four points behind the visitors from Manchester, the disparity in the mood in both camps before March 15’s encounter indicated the Red Devils were favourites for all three points, a result that may realistically have ended the London side’s top four hopes, if not mathematically.

Ighalo and co. were on an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions, including 2-0 wins over Chelsea and fierce rivals Manchester City, featuring nine clean sheets and two goals conceded. Their tails were up and a win at a Spurs side winless in six on the trot and seemingly running on empty was expected.

The return of their top hitters, though, means Tottenham have been handed a huge lifeline in saving what seemed like a failed season in March, starting with a huge fixture against a side they’re in direct competition with for a European spot.

Jose Mourinho Tottenham 2019-20

While Ighalo may not feature in the encounter and, as a matter of fact for a significant portion of what’s left in the Premier League this term, Serge Aurier will be an important figure for Spurs and Mourinho for the final nine gameweeks.

The perception of the Ivory Coast captain in England suggests the right-back can be a firebrand and unreliable in equal measure. Observers would point to mistakes in losses at home to Chelsea in December and away at RB Leipzig in March as Exhibit A to back up the conviction that he cannot be relied upon, while he ran foul of social distancing guidelines twice in the last two months to add to a seemingly endless rap sheet.

Notwithstanding, the notion Aurier doesn’t contribute enough on the pitch as is often argued couldn’t be more misguided.

The right-back’s importance to Spurs’ attack since Mourinho took charge in November is well documented, and how he serves as an auxiliary winger when they attack has proved useful going forward. His four assists are bettered by Son (seven) while he sits fifth for goal contributions in the entire side.

Piece on @GoalAfrica: In defence of Serge Aurier & why witch-hunt of Spurs defender has to stop. #THFC https://t.co/7w3LZ0mr7F

— Seye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) April 8, 2020

Also, 1.2 key passes per game is third behind the South Korean star (1.5) and January signing Steven Bergwijn (1.4), while the West African’s four clear-cut chances created is also third-best in the side behind Son and Dele Alli, who have set up 10 and six respectively.

Serge Aurier Tottenham 2019-20

Aurier’s underlying defensive numbers are also encouraging: he’s well ahead of Jan Vertonghen for tackles per game (3.1 to 2.1) and only beaten by the Belgian centre-back for interceptions per match (1.6 to 1.5).

The defender’s statistics demonstrate that while there remains room for improvement, the Ivorian is far from the liability he’s been labelled as by the media.

For Ighalo, minutes may be infrequent after Project Restart becomes a reality, still, as long as he remains a Red Devil, there’ll always be a possibility of that standout moment the striker craves.

As for Aurier, the full-back’s case was always built on not judging him amid the team’s malaise but until he could be utilised alongside a healthy squad.

With Spurs and Mourinho seemingly beneficiaries of the pandemic that brought the sport to its knees, the much-maligned Ivorian can demonstrate why the criticism thrown at him is unwarranted.

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