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Ferguson counts lucky stars over 'Little Pea' coup

THE defeat was so stunning and so against the grain of the night that Alex Ferguson could barely articulate his disappointment.

But to Javier Hernandez, seeing Old Trafford for the first time -- even though his new team had just been knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich -- was the stuff of dreams. "It gave me goose bumps", he remarked afterwards.

With another, less celebrated German side, Schalke, barring Manchester United's path to a fifth European Cup final, it seems impossible to imagine Hernandez will be watching from the stands as he was a year ago.

Then, he had been flown from Guadalajara to Manchester, with Ferguson beaming that the £7m deal -- rated by Wayne Rooney as the "buy of the century" -- had been so secretive that not a word had been leaked, not even to Hernandez's own family.

Everton manager David Moyes admitted that he had not heard of the boy they called 'Chicharito' or 'Little Pea, but then very few had.

The header that broke Everton's rugged resistance and propelled United to within touching distance of the title was his 19th of the season and his 12th in the Premier League. His goals have earned United 13 points.

Though Jim Lawlor, United's chief scout, will not get a medal or a mention should the Premier League title return to Old Trafford, the three weeks he spent in Mexico, after a tip-off from an acquaintance at Liverpool's John Moores University, were critical to the club's campaign.

Knowing Hernandez is the son and grandson of Mexico internationals, Lawlor was satisfied there would be no questions about the boy's pedigree, although Ferguson thought it might take time for Little Pea to bed in.

"We did not expect this kind of return," Ferguson said. "We thought this year would be an introduction to the club, getting adapted to English football and strengthening him up. But he has done all these things and more.

"He has passed all those tests. He's first in at nine o'clock in the morning and he's the last one to leave. He's a truly dedicated boy."

Afterwards, Hernandez was modest and self-effacing, translating for Anderson when the midfielder was given his man-of-the-match award, which raises the question: how have United allowed the Brazilian to learn so little English in four years that he cannot manage an interview with Sky Sports?

Interviewed himself, Hernandez said he would swap all his goals for a league championship, although without them United would be third this morning.

He was full of polite platitudes: "Everton are a good team". Defensively they were exceptional but they did not possess a centre-forward worthy of the name. They had one shot, very well saved by Edwin van der Sar, and two penalty appeals, neither of which Moyes thought justified.

However, when he discussed the goal, he let slip how the truly gifted react. The cross from Fabio da Silva deflected off Sylvain Distin but Hernandez spotted the flight of the ball fractionally quicker than Tony Hibbert and, recalling how Tim Howard had leapt high to save an earlier header, directed the ball down.

It was how Michael Owen used to play but he, like the ridiculed signing of Bebe, seems one of Ferguson's gambles destined not to pay off.

Ferguson has, though, recouped everything and more with the £7m spent on Hernandez.

Turn the clock back 12 months, when United struggled for goals without the injured Rooney and saw their title hopes evaporate in a dismal 0-0 stalemate against Blackburn at Ewood Park, and the value of Hernandez becomes clear. He has the knack of finding something, somehow, to turn draws into wins.

Hernandez's pace and inclination to head for goal, ahead of Berbatov's slower approach play, gives United a similar thrust as that which paved the way for Louis Saha to bring down the curtain on Ruud van Nistelrooy's Old Trafford career five years ago.

In contrast to the Premier League, where his goals have generally come against modest opposition, Hernandez has scored big in Europe.

In the Mestalla, he broke the deadlock against Valencia and, but for his two goals against Marseilles, Manchester United would not be flying to the Ruhr this morning.

For the third time, Ferguson faces a European Cup semi-final against modest-looking German opposition. Twice previously, he has lost.

In 1997, before playing Borussia Dortmund, United had beaten Liverpool 3-1 to go five points clear in the league, allowing Ferguson to note in his diary of the season: "I'm feeling good. If we focus our minds and carry on working hard, the title will be ours." It was, and he was "confident" United "could handle Dortmund", which they could not.

Five years later in Bayer Leverkusen's modest arena, Roy Keane noted a team-mate, who he untypically refused to name, "shaking with fear" as the teams lined up. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent