Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed Javier Hernandez's "startling" introduction to English football has condemned Dimitar Berbatov to life on the substitutes' bench.
Wayne Rooney's suspension means Berbatov is likely to be recalled for tomorrow's FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City at Wembley. Yet it seems like a temporary reprieve for the Bulgarian, which is a bizarre situation for the man seemingly destined to end up as this season's Premier League Golden Boot winner to find himself in.
The reason, according to Ferguson, is Hernandez. Signed from Guadalajara as a virtual unknown prior to the FIFA World Cup™, the 22-year-old scored his 18th goal of the season in Tuesday's UEFA Champions League triumph and has earned comparisons from his manager, not only with United hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but England striking legend Gary Lineker.
"I really didn't expect Hernandez to have this impact," said Ferguson. "As we said to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, we thought his first season would be about integration.
"Solskjaer played in a few reserves games and scored a hat-trick against Leeds [United]. After that [coach] Jim Ryan came to me and said he is a first-team player. We made him a sub the following week against Blackburn [Rovers] and he scored.
"The only advantage for Hernandez was that he'd played in the World Cup so there was a profile attached to him and he had also come from a much tougher domestic competition."
Two goals in South Africa had indicated Hernandez was going to prove a bargain at £7million and when he scored a ridiculous goal on his debut in the Community Shield, where he fired the ball into the Chelsea net by smacking the ball into his own face, Hernandez instantly avoided the growing demand for a goal that proved to be Diego Forlan's undoing at United.
Although Hernandez had added six more before the turn of the year, it was his New Year's Day match-winner at West Bromwich Albion which really triggered a transformation. That late effort at the Hawthorns was the first in a run of 11 goals in 17 games, six of which he has started on the substitutes' bench.
"Hernandez is fantastic at taking up positions inside the penalty box," said Ferguson. "It is natural. He has the instinct to move around and his timing is terrific. There have only been a few top strikers who have had that quality. Ole was one and Gary Lineker probably never scored a good goal in his life, but he was always in space. He'd get rebounds off goalkeepers and was always in really good areas."
Hernandez form 'unfortunate' for Berbatov
All this has rather left Berbatov in the cold. Fellow countryman Hristo Stoichkov recently claimed the 30-year-old had no interest in leaving Old Trafford and, although a very private individual who rarely offers public thoughts on personal matters, there has been no suggestion he sees his short-term future elsewhere.
Clearly though, Berbatov has been presented with an unexpected challenge, which may explain why talks over an extension to his present contract, which expires at the end of next season, have so far failed to reach a positive conclusion.
"It is unfortunate for Dimitar because he is a fantastic player," said Ferguson of Berbatov's present plight. "But the reasons are obvious. The emergence of Hernandez in the last couple of months has been startling. He is improving all the time and is getting stronger.
"It is very difficult to leave a player out when he hits that kind of form. Every manager and every player in the country has faced that situation in their career when someone emerges to challenge you. It is the horrible part of being a footballer."
It remains to be seen whether those words are the beginning of the end for Berbatov's United career. However, Hernandez's emergence has definitely answered the very public question marks Rooney raised about United's ability to recruit high-class players during his much-publicised contract stand-off last year.