Rooney absence gives Hernandez the chance to prove he can live up to great expectations
Published 01/10/2010 | 05:00
Though Javier Hernandez is a conspicuously devout young Mexican footballer -- his pre-match devotions are worthy of an imperilled matador -- it is not to any part of the apostolic succession that he elected himself in Valencia this week.
No, more likely he became another player in Alex Ferguson's sometimes brutal tradition of unveiling a new meteor in the sky above Old Trafford at the first hint that an old one may have burned itself out.
The classic example was the moving on of David Beckham. Fans were outraged, but Ferguson was emphatic. Beckham's time was over -- and hadn't he got a dramatically effective replacement in Cristiano Ronaldo?
When the Portuguese supernova became a little too mesmerised by his own light, Wayne Rooney took over centre stage -- at least for one season.
One goal, however brilliantly taken, in the gaunt old Mestalla stadium, is maybe not enough to signal another immediate transfer of allegiance and faith, but if Ferguson was relatively low-key after the 22-year-old Mexican's intervention in a Champions League game in which United mostly struggled to hold at bay the attacking invention of La Liga leaders Valencia, he could hardly disguise his relief that the hard edge of the Rooney crisis may well have been smoothed away.
He said all the things you expect of an old manager assessing an emerging young talent. Things like, "he hasn't had a lot of football and though he's building his strength in the gym, he still has a lot of work to do." And, "he has to work on technique."
But Ferguson said something else about Chicharito "Little Pea" and it must have been a detonation in the ears of the embattled Rooney. The manager declared, "He is a natural finisher with both feet. He proved that tonight...it was like shelling peas."
There was the exhilaration -- and the threat to Rooney as he struggles with injury and what some fear is a catastrophic loss of confidence; and joy in the game -- after the shattering blows which came with the exposure of his private life.
With Dimitar Barbatov showing some striking signs of resurrection, Ferguson's hand has been further strengthened by Federico Macheda's reminder that United's raid on the young Lazio star, which so outraged the Roman club, may have been another inspired move performed in the shadow of spending restraints imposed by the high-debt operating policy of United's American owners.
Macheda's smoothly executed support of Hernandez for the goal that silenced the Mestalla was one of the most coherent strikes seen from United since the brief partnership of Rooney and the brilliant veteran Henrik Larsson. This, however, was pure youth and adventure, and relatively inexpensive, talent on the flying hoof.
No doubt, though, it is the £7m investment in Hernandez which most excited Ferguson on the flight home from Spain.
Scouting reports from Mexico were hugely positive and any doubts about the Little Pea were dismissed to some considerable extent in the South African World Cup.
While Rooney became a parody of the masterful striker who terrorised defences for most of the season, Hernandez scored two goals and embraced the big-match atmosphere with brimming confidence.
Now, he has three weeks to exploit the absence of Rooney. 90 minutes can be a long time in the life of a footballer. Three weeks can represent an eternity of development and soaring confidence.
Yet if events in Valencia provided solid reasons for United celebration, did they really sweep away all the doubts created by an erratic start to a season in which Chelsea have announced themselves -- but for the narrow defeat at an impassioned and ferocious tackling Manchester City -- as potentially outstanding and untouchable defending champions?
Perhaps they did not. Rio Ferdinand inevitably brought more composure at the back, but every time he goes into a tackle Ferguson must wince with fearful anticipation.
Nemanja Vidic was a giant against Valencia, but then he needed to be, as the Spanish team touched much superior levels of creativity without producing a single flash of cold steel.
It is in the midfield where Ferguson is surely most haunted. He can only yearn for the authority of men like Bryan Robson and Roy Keane and hope, impractically, that Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can indefinitely extend the glory of their Indian summers.
Of course they cannot hope to do this, and in the impending vacuum the return to action by Anderson and Michael Carrick was less than reassuring. Chelsea have the likes of Michael Essien and, when he returns to fitness, Frank Lampard, to shaping and dictate a performance. This represents an operating base so solid, so driving, that it can only fill Ferguson with envy.
Nani, we have seen frequently this new season, has the capacity to perform brilliantly. But he is not an enduring influence. His decision-making at critical moments is not a matter generating sublime confidence -- and nor his inclination to stay vertical at the breath of a serious challenge.
The greatest disappointment, though, is Carrick -- a player of hugely growing touch and confidence right up to the second half of United's third straight title triumph.
In Valencia, his defensive reading, and performance, was sound enough, but there was little of the creative force which persuaded some that sooner or later Fabio Capello would have to transfer to him the faith shown in such as Gareth Barry and/or Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
For the moment at least such a scenario could scarcely seem more remote. It means that Ferguson is obliged to draw most comfort from an unlikely victory when he considers that killer one-two from Macheda and Hernandez.
The Little Pea was euphoric, declaring: "I've had pressure before and I love it. I always want the ball. I want to make the biggest contribution I can."
Such a statement of intent is no doubt the most pleasing music in Ferguson's ears. No-one needs to tell him that one goal never made a season.
However, it can announce a player who may have put himself on a new level. For United, the timing was nothing less than sensational.