‘The title is ours’, not exactly Sir Alex Ferguson’s words after Manchester United beat Everton 1-0 on Saturday at Old Trafford but they could well have been. United’s late late victory, not for the first time in a season that has rarely sparkled yet promises to bring more silverware, brings the Reds to within just seven points of claiming the Premier League. Or in other words, with games against relegation threatened Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool to come, United can probably win one and lose one of upcoming fixtures with title-rivals Arsenal and Chelsea in the next fortnight.
Ferguson’s position is understandably bullish after Javier Hernández 81st minute strike on Saturday. It was the Mexican’s 19th goal of a campaign that is increasingly defined by the 22-year-old’s performances.
“Games are running out for our rivals and we’re up for it,” said Ferguson after Saturday’s victory over Everton.
“I enjoy this critical stage of a season when we are involved in big games that come thick and fast and I think we will be OK. The thing that puzzles me is they [the media] keep saying Arsenal and Chelsea have got to play us still, like we’re going to lose to them but why shouldn’t we win those games? Why can’t we go to the Emirates Stadium and win, as we have done previously?
“As I said to the players, forget all that nonsense. Just try to win your games and you’ll be all right, keep your heads and don’t get carried away.”
Indeed, yesterday’s laboured win over in-form Everton should remind Ferguson’s players – as if any prompting is really needed – that points and not performances is what counts come April and May. It is a lesson so rarely learned at the Emirates. After all, despite United’s dominance against Everton there would be no Arsenal-style sympathy had United thrown away the points.
Not so against David Moyes’ spirited outfit. Much as is United’s type this season, the Reds continued to probe for openings, patient in the knowledge that chances would eventually come. More than 60 per cent possession and 16 chances created against Everton, who had not lost in seven matches, attest to that. Other United sides have demonstrated more talent; few have shown more character. It is a trait for which Ferguson can taken much praise.
“There is that winning attitude about them,” added the 69-year-old Scot.
“We will keep our heads down and not get carried away. There are only four games left and the way they are going about their business and the effort they have shown, it gives them an outstanding chance of being champions. You can test people’s character but they keep coming through.
“We had some great openings and could have had this match finished by half-time but it is in the traditions of Manchester United that we don’t do that. We always wait until the very end and keep everyone high on the edge of their seats but we get there.”
On Hernández Ferguson rightly praised the role the sprightly Mexican has played this season. Buy of the summer? Buy of the decade more like. For all the Scot’s disingenuous talk of the transfer market’s lack of value, deliberately hiding as it does the Glazer family’s financial agenda, Hernández has proven a genuine bargain.
“Javier has done better than everyone expected,” added Ferguson.
“We thought that because it was his first year, he would just get used to the English game and get strengthened up. He has passed all those tests. He is first in at nine o’clock every morning and he is the last to leave. He is a truly dedicated boy.”
After all, Hernández has not only scored late goals for United but winning goals. This is no kid, brought on with 10 to play in a dead rubber, that is helping himself to easy pickings. In his first campaign with the club, United would not be in position to win the title without Hernández.
Meanwhile, Hernández is genuinely humble in his achievements, preferring to enthuse the team ethic and not his own contribution that should have brought a PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
“Of course it’s a dream come true, this season,” said the former Chivas striker.
“If we win the Premier League, that’s an unbelievable thing. If I could swap all the goals for us to win the league then I would do it. We know we are almost there, but we can’t afford to think like we’ve already won it. We go day by day, week by week.
“I’m very happy, but I’m happier because we got the three points. Here at Manchester United we need to win every game and it doesn’t matter who scores.”
In that there is a false modesty of course. Hernández’ goals have taken United to within a whisker of glory. Grab more than a point over the next two matches and United supporters worldwide can start to celebrate.