By Tom Biggs
When Javier Hernandez arrived this summer, no-one could have expected him to become such an important player in what is shaping up to be one of the closest title races in Premier League history.
His double against Marseille on Tuesday night ensured The Red Devils marched into the quarter finals of the Champions League, and kept them in contention for an incredible treble.
His partnership with Wayne Rooney has blossomed in recent weeks, and one man is struggling to keep a regular place in the team, despite being the Premier League’s top goal scorer so far this season.
That man is Dimitar Berbatov. With 19 league goals to his name so far this season, along with three hat-tricks, he will be wondering exactly what he needs to do in order to get a long run of games.
The Bulgarian Player of the Year sat on the bench on Tuesday night looking extremely glum and even boss Sir Alex Ferguson chuckled with assistant Mike Phelan about the sulking striker.
The 30-year-old was recalled to the starting line up for the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool last Sunday, after three substitute appearances, but was then left out of the FA Cup win against Arsenal the following week, and the Champions League victory against Marseille this Tuesday.
He hasn’t scored since the 3-2 victory away at Blackpool in January, where he bagged a brace back and has struggled to link up well with a rejuvenated Rooney, giving Hernandez his chance to shine.
Ferguson admits he is shocked at the impact Hernandez has had. He said: “We are surprised at how fast he has developed. When we bought him we thought he would take some time to adapt.
“First of all his main role was as a substitute and the times he came on he won a few games for us, but now he’s used to the physical part and he is lasting the 90 minutes very well. He gives us great options.”
Berbatov failed to make an impact against Liverpool last Sunday, whereas Hernandez came on and looked lively, scoring a consolation deep into stoppage time. Ferguson then chose Hernandez for the quarter final clash in the FA Cup with rivals Arsenal, and Chicharito (as he likes to be known) impressed alongside Rooney, and was unlucky not to score.
With goals required against Marseille on Tuesday, Ferguson had to make a decision. Tried and tested Berbatov, or the young and lively Hernandez. He got it absolutely spot on. Hernandez put United 1-0 up early in the first half, before sealing the game with his 16th goal of the season – a quite brilliant return in only his first season in England.
The £6m summer buy from Chivas De Guadalajara has been compared to goal scoring legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in recent weeks, and no-one can argue that the 22-year-old Mexican has quickly adapted to life in Manchester.
Strike partner Berbatov has made 26 appearances in the Premier League this season, and while he has scored 19 goals, they have all come in just nine games. He scored three against Liverpool and Birmingham, five against Blackburn, and two against Sunderland and Blackpool. So while his return of 19 goals looks good, he hasn’t been producing consistently.
The former Tottenham man will of course play a vital role in United’s treble challenge, but with Hernandez and Rooney linking up brilliantly, Ferguson now has plenty of options going forward, which will be a relief with all the defensive casualties at Old Trafford currently.
Berbatov jumped the barrier on Tuesday night, to avoid questions from the media, but it’s now becoming very hard for him not to accept Hernandez is not just a fringe player, or a super sub.
Berbatov has failed to score in five games in Europe this season, while he didn’t feature in the League Cup, and has only made one appearance to date in the FA Cup. Meanwhile, Hernandez has scored three goals in Europe so far, from five appearances and once in four games in the FA Cup.
With Rooney struggling earlier in the season, Berbatov was under a lot of pressure to deliver, and that’s exactly what he was doing. As Rooney began to rediscover his form, Berbatov’s dipped, and Hernandez was quick to capitalise.
With the Englishman playing just behind Hernandez, he has shown signs he is getting back to his best. Rooney set Hernandez up perfectly for the first on Tuesday night, and both played instrumental roles in the defining moments against Arsenal.
After the game on Tuesday, Rooney was quick to heap praise on his strike partner. He said: “He’s definitely the buy of the season. He’s been fantastic and works so hard as well. He wants to improve and that’s good to see.”
Berbatov and Hernandez have started six games together this season, and Berbatov is yet to score when partnered with the Mexican. Hernandez has scored three in their six starts (two against Stoke and one against West Brom). Neither of them have scored in four of the six games they’ve feature from the start in together, leaving it hard for Ferguson to start with both of them, especially in vital games such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Marseille.
The Bulgarian will get his chances, with so many games left to play this season, as United attempt to win another sensational treble with Ferguson in charge. Hernandez though will make sure he is hot on the heels of both Berbatov and Rooney and he’s certainly going about it the right way, with Ferguson finding it hard to leave the ‘Little Pea’ out of his starting XI.
Rooney quote via BBC Sport
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