Saturday 20 January 2018

Hernandez heralds new 'Ole' era with late winner

Valencia 0
Man United 1

Mark Ogden in Valencia

Those comparisons to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might just have a ring of truth for Javier Hernandez. The Mexican forward, a 77th-minute replacement for Brazilian midfielder Anderson, certainly took a leaf out of Solskjaer's book by registering his first competitive goal for Manchester United with a crucial late Champions League winner in Spain.

He clearly has some way to go before emulating Solskjaer's entry into United folklore with his injury-time winner in the 1999 final against Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp. But with United seemingly heading for their third successive stalemate against Valencia at the Mestalla, he secured only United's second victory in 19 attempts in Spain with a predatory strike from 12 yards.

The goal ensured a priceless victory for United, who will now feel they are in firm control of Group C.

Injuries to Wayne Rooney, who had his left ankle scanned at a hospital in Manchester yesterday, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs had forced Alex Ferguson into three changes, but he also withdrew Jonny Evans and John O'Shea from the team that started against Bolton on Sunday in favour of Rio Ferdinand and Rafael for the clash with the La Liga leaders.

Twenty-eight years to the night since Ron Atkinson's United suffered a 2-1 Uefa Cup defeat here, Ferguson's players knew that a similar result would leave them with a climb as steep as the vertigo-inducing Mestalla stands to claim top spot in Group C.

With Valencia in such impressive form, Ferguson would not have wished to send United out against Unai Emery's team shorn of such big-game experience, but the return of Ferdinand at least ensured the restoration of his defensive partnership with Nemanja Vidic for the first time since the 4-0 victory against Stoke City in May.


United's cause was aided, however, by the swathes of empty seats inside the Mestalla, traditionally one of Europe's intimidating arenas.

A general strike in Spain had clearly affected the travel plans of many supporters and that issue, combined with restricted finances brought on by austerity measures imposed by the government, left this cauldron of a stadium a decibel or two less formidable than it might have been.

The subdued atmosphere might just have contributed to United being spared the early onslaught that tends to greet teams visiting Spain on European nights. It took 15 minutes for the hosts to threaten, with Pablo Hernandez shooting narrowly over the crossbar from 25 yards after capitalising on a sloppy Michael Carrick pass.

Sixty seconds later, Edwin van der Sar could only palm Alejandro Dominguez's cross on to the head of Roberto Soldado, but the forward wastefully headed the ball on to the roof of the net.

Prior to those near-misses, Dimitar Berbatov, starting his first Champions League game since last October, had gone close to giving United a fourth-minute lead when his right-foot strike from the edge of the area whistled an inch over Cesar Sanchez's crossbar.

Those long-range efforts aside, there was a distinct sense that both teams were content to keep their guard up. Respect and fear appeared to be held in equal measure by both sets of players and neither team managed to cut loose in the first half.

United's line-up contributed to their cautious approach. Without the threat of Rooney or the vision of Giggs and Scholes, this was the roundheads. The cavaliers had stayed at home.

As a result, United too often conceded possession and Valencia attempted to pick holes in Ferguson's defence by stretching the play to the full width of the pitch.

Juan Mata was afforded too much space on the left flank by Nani and Rafael, while Hernandez proved a thorn in Patrice Evra's side.

Rafael's defensive naivety almost led to Valencia scoring a breakaway goal on 44 minutes. Whether the Brazilian's genes had betrayed him into thinking he was Ronaldinho rather than Manchester United's right-back, only the 20-year-old can testify, but when he passed the ball to Park on the edge of the Valencia penalty area, he was half the pitch away from his defensive station.

So when Valencia broke at pace after Park once again lost the ball, Rafael was still deep in opposition territory, leaving Ferdinand exposed and caught between filling in at right-back and blocking the advancing wave of white shirts.

But for Van der Sar saving from Soldado, Rafael might have found himself on the end on Ferguson's fury.

While United carried more attacking threat in the second half, Valencia continued to cause consternation down the flanks and the impressive Hernandez cut inside from the right before sending a left-foot shot just wide of Van der Sar's far post on 49 minutes. United were neater in possession, however, and with Darren Fletcher driving the midfield, there was more adventure from Ferguson's team.

Fletcher's 40-yard pass to Berbatov on 57 minutes saw the Bulgarian shrug off the challenge of David Navarro before he powered in the penalty area, but he was denied an opening goal by goalkeeper Cesar.

Valencia went close to scoring in a late onslaught when Soldado and Manuel Fernandes tested Van der Sar.

But Hernandez settled the tie when he clinically sent a left-foot strike past Cesar after being teed up by fellow substitute Federico Macheda. It was clean, crisp and deadly. Just like Solskjaer in his pomp. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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