Chicharito’s last stand
How typically Javier Hernández, stealing across his central defensive marker to score at the near post. The Mexican did it twice on Friday night, netting his first with the instep to the goalkeeper’s right, and then a flicking neatly over his opponent with the outside of his boot to earn a 2-2 draw with Nigeria in Houston. Friendly it may have been, but the old instincts die-hard; Hernández has always been an outstanding finisher.
The international double came just a day ahead of Chicharito’s birthday, with the striker turning 25 on Saturday. And with the brace he secured his 32nd international goal in just 47 appearances – continuing a remarkable scoring record during four years as a senior international.
Jared Borgetti’s Mexican record of 46 in 89 appearances for El Tricolor will surely be broken – possibly before World Cup 2014 is over, with the player also featuring in the Confederations Cup this summer.
Yet, no longer the fresh-faced boy who arrived at Old Trafford shortly after the 2010 World Cup, Hernández faces a potentially career-defining choice this summer; stick at Manchester United with a new manager at the helm, and potentially fresh opportunities arising, or twist in search of more regular football, probably on the continent.
Indeed, the striker started just nine Premier League games in the campaign just concluded – 22 in all competitions – far too few for a player whose finishing quality has oft been lauded by former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
In fact the Mexican’s position at United’s became even more marginal towards the denouement of Ferguson’s reign. Hernández started and finished just two of United’s last 10 matches this season – the dead rubber on the final day of the campaign and the FA Cup replay with Chelsea. Worse, Hernández was afforded less than 15 minutes on the pitch in each of his last four substitute appearances for the Reds.
With Robin van Persie prefered at number nine, Wayne Rooney in the deeper role at 10, and Danny Welbeck the most flexible of United’s quartet of strikers, it is perhaps unsurprising Hernández has found game-time increasingly sparse.
It comes as little shock, then, that the vultures are circling on the continent; Juventus the latest club reportedly interested in adding the Mexican to its roster next season. Long-time admirers Real Madrid and neighbours Atlético – in search of Radamel Falcao’s replacement – might also seek to prize away United’s fourth-choice forward this summer.
Relocation away from Manchester might suit the striker too – there is little satisfaction to be gained sitting on the bench for around two-thirds of the season even if United continues to challenge on all fronts.
Hernández’ nightmare scenario, if he continues to spend more time on the club bench than off it, is losing his place in the national team ahead of next summer’s World Cup – perhaps t0 Aldo de Nigris, youngster Raúl Jiménez or veteran Omar Bravo.
Still, Ferguson’s decision to acquire the unheralded 21-year-old prior to World Cup 2010 proved inspired. It also afford Hernández his first shot at European football; a fact that has secured the Mexican’s loyalty despite the rapid rise to fame.
“The impact Sir Alex has had on me is massive,” admitted the striker recently.
“He gave me this big chance to play at the biggest club in the world. He has taught me a lot and I only have thankful words for him. I have won two league titles in three years and played in the Champions League final.
“Of course I would love to start more often but I will keep the same attitude. When the gaffer wants me on the bench or the starting line-up I will do my best. My attitude is going to be very good because I want to respect the club.”
Not one to rock the boat, Hernández is unlikely to push for a transfer this summer, but with the debt of loyalty to Ferguson now broken, nor are the ties to the club as strong as they once were. No longer is it unthinkable that the Little Pea moves on.
Moreover, with David Moyes typically preferring a single-striker system, Hernández will likely see no increase in match time under the new manager than he has in the past three seasons.
After all, van Persie is a prerequisite leading the line, while Chicharito is really only effective playing ahead of a deeper lying partner. It means the Mexican is always likely to be the Dutchman’s understudy if Moyes repeats the tactical system deployed at Goodison Park, where Marouane Fellaini was deployed deep behind Nikica Jelavić.
Even if Rooney departs this summer it is Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who is desperate for an opportunity in his natural role at ’10’, that will likely benefit the most.
In this Hernández suffers for being the least flexible of United’s front four; a natural finisher usurped by those who offer a more rounded contribution. It is a developmental waypoint that outgoing manager Ferguson identified as the campaign came to a close.
“I hope he feels he’s made a contribution because we all feel he’s done that,” said Ferguson.
“His enthusiasm is always there and there’s no reason to think that this isn’t the place for him. Maturity also finds players every summer and he’s old enough to mature, obviously.”
Certainly, the player has become more confident in his contrition outside the box in three years at Old Trafford. From the player who often tried too hard by coming deep, to one that successfully finds his team-mate with 77 per cent of passes in opponent’s half.
But it is with 18 goals in all competitions this season that Hernández’ contributed most, whatever the growth in his game. Moyes is surely loathe to forego a player who scored key goals against SC Braga, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Swansea City during the campaign.
And at just 72 minutes per Premier League goal involvement, including 10 goals and three assists, Hernández boasts by far the best rate of any player to have scored 10 or more during the league season. It is a record that should prompt the new manager to eke at least one more season out of the Mexican, whatever the temptations on offer from clubs abroad.