When Manchester United announced the signing of Javier Hernandez last April, the lack of fanfare was marked. Fans noted Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments on this Mexican youngster’s potential and prodigious scoring rate, but what they really wanted was a big name; an established star.
Cristiano Ronaldo had never been fully replaced, the team appeared overly dependent on Wayne Rooney’s goals and, besides, Ferguson’s history with Latin American imports did not bode well, with Kleberson and Juan Sebastian Veron two of the Scot’s most expensive mistakes. Yet as the anniversary of Hernandez’s unveiling approaches, the queue for humble pie is growing longer by the week.
It has long become clear that Ferguson, in agreeing the £7 million transfer before Hernandez went on to play - and excel - at the FIFA World Cup™, saved his club a fortune. What was hinted at in South Africa, and has been confirmed in the time since, is that the veteran United manager had also acquired one of that rare, precious breed: a natural, instinctive and lethal goalscorer.
In that respect, the facts speak for themselves. In what was expected to be a season of steady acclimatisation, the Mexican has scored 16 goals in just 17 starts, finding the net with 13 of his 20 shots on target in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League. "When he takes a chance it is like shelling peas to him,” Ferguson has enthused. “It is so natural to him. He is a natural finisher.”
The doubters have certainly long since disappeared, and as well as helping to offset the goals lost through Rooney’s crisis in confidence, Hernandez has also done enough to squeeze England’s top scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, out of United’s starting line-up. It was the player known as Chicharito, or ‘Little Pea’ (his father, nicknamed ‘The Pea’, represented Mexico in the 1986 FIFA World Cup) whom Ferguson considered a greater threat to both Arsenal and Marseille, and this belief was duly borne out.
Last night’s goals against the French champions – both, typically, from inside the six-yard box – secured the Scot’s 100th Champions League and earned the match-winner glowing and thoroughly deserved post-match praise. “Hernandez is unbelievable," said the United boss. “His movement for the goal... he’s made three different types of run: in, out, in, out, in, out. The boy’s just got goals in him.”
The United manager added that even he has been taken aback by the speed at which the 22-year-old has progressed. “When we bought him we thought he would take some time to adapt,” he admitted. “First of all his main role was as a substitute and the times he came on he won a few games for us, but now he's used to the physical part and he is lasting the 90 minutes very well. He gives us great options."
Rooney, who is also now flourishing in a more creative, deep-lying role, echoed his manager’s sentiments, lauding his strike partner as “a fantastic player” and acknowledging the new dimension his pace brings to United’s play. As the England striker said: "He always tries to stay on the shoulder, looks in behind and he's a quick player. By making those runs in behind defenders it creates a bit more space for you in front of them.”
Hernandez’s style of play, and lethal finishing instincts, are also enabling him to live up to praise that was bestowed on him last summer, when Ferguson likened the youngster to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It a compliment that raised eyebrows at the time, but United’s latest ‘baby-faced assassin’ is proving that he has all the ingredients to emulate the hero of Ferguson’s first, unforgettable Champions League triumph.
If United are to walk up the Wembley steps to collect that famous old trophy once again, chances are that their Little Pea will have played a very big role.