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Silent Ighalo's Nigeria hat-trick does the talking

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If Super Eagles fans had their way, Odion Ighalo's international career would have been over at the final whistle of Nigeria's last game of the 2018 World Cup.

The main cause for outrage was a costly miss against Argentina, which would have taken the Super Eagles to 2-0, and made Marcos Rojo's late goal moot, sending the Nigerians to the round of 16.

Ighalo's miss was not quite as bad as Yakubu Aiyegbeni's from the 2010 World Cup against South Korea, but the reaction across the country was pretty similar. Caustic memes abounded.

A lesser man might have packed it in. Especially one being paid handsomely in China and appreciated at club level in for his services, and for whom he continues to plunder goals. At the last count, he was on 20 for Changchun Yatai, the most by any Nigerian striker this season.

Even if the player did not call time on his career, a coach with less gumption than Gernot Rohr might have decided to save both himself and the player the aggravation, by leaving him out of the squad for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers that followed in September and October.

Not Rohr. The German doubled down on his forward, telling media while announcing the squad for Seychelles last month that he wanted to give the 29-year-old a chance to show the fans that he could still do the job.

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Changchun Yatai's Odion Ighalo is Nigeria's top scorer this season, across all leagues globally.

The striker himself declined media interviews, focusing instead on his game and getting his mojo back. Sources close to the player told KweséESPN that he did not want his legacy tainted by that World Cup performance, and Ighalo began his road to redemption by converting a penalty against Seychelles.

In training for the Libya double header this week, the forward looked and worked like a man possessed. All of that hard work showed within the opening minutes of the game on Saturday, when he hunted down the goalkeeper within the opening three minutes, won the ball and then a penalty kick, which he duly dispatched.

That drive saw him continue to hustle for the entirety of the 75 minutes he was on the field, chasing lost causes, egging his teammates on, causing all manner of discomfort for the Libyan centre backs, and getting himself into scoring positions.

It is that drive that would see him go on to help himself to a hat trick, the first of his international career, and rousing applause from the suddenly appreciative fans when he was subbed off.

None of his goals were easy. The penalty kick, with all the pressure he was under, could have been the last straw if he had missed. He did not.

Then, after he rounded Muhammad Nashnoush, he could have rushed his shot and either missed or seen it saved by the Libya goalie. Instead, he took his time and a second touch after the keeper had committed, before hitting the ball into an empty net.

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Odion Ighalo celebrates with the bench after scoring one of his three goals against Libya on 13 October. 

His third was not assured either. With the ball landing awkwardly between his feet, forcing him to dig it out, he saw his first shot saved before slotting the rebound past three defenders on the line.

"We had again the confidence to bring Ighalo," the coach said after the game. "Even two days ago during the press conference, one of you asked me why do you maintain Ighalo in this team. I think today he has given the answer. It is wonderful to see him score these goals."

Usually, the hat trick hero would be the one at the post match press conference. But perhaps more aware of the fickle nature of football fandom, Ighalo is still keeping his own counsel. For how long remains unclear, but the forward appears focused on doing his talking on the pitch.

If keeping schtum allows him to do a repeat in the second leg on Tuesday, there will be few complaints, even from the sofa experts on social media.

 

Source: Colin Udoh , West Afica Editor, ESPN

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