Little Pea has arrived: Javier Hernandez brace sends United through to the Champions League quarter finals.
By Jim White
There is always a polyglot of visitors at Old Trafford. The streets around the ground ring with impenetrable dialects: the singsong of Norway, the busy Chinese of Singapore, the nasal twang of Ancoats.
And on Tuesday night, in addition to the 5,000 French supporters being marshalled by a steward declaiming in Salford French “eecee votres billets silver pat”, could be found a knot of Mexicans.
Draped in the national flag, announcing their presence in sombreros and ponchos and loud song, they were, they insisted, only there for Chicharito. After the match-winning performance by their hero, of this we can be certain: they will be back. And next time they’ll bring the rest of the family. If not the whole country.
In his first season in Manchester, Javier Hernandez, the Mexican with the sort of nickname – Little Pea – that would cause endless tittering in a Mancunian playground, has quickly made his mark.
On the merchandise stalls dotting the route to the ground, his face now occupies as many t-shirts as the old favourites Cantona, Best and Giggs.
The green, white and red Mexican flag ever more frequently flutters in the stands. Clearly his manager, too, believes he has now arrived.
For the second big game in a week, Sir Alex Ferguson deployed young Hernandez as his spearhead. For the second big game in a week it was a decision that meant Dimitar Berbatov, the club’s leading scorer was left marooned on the bench, not trusted to lead the line.
The United boss must have liked what he saw on Saturday, in the FA Cup tie with Arsenal, when Hernandez formed such an effective partnership with Wayne Rooney.
The Mexican had occupied the attentions of the Gunners’ back four with his energetic running, allowing Rooney to fall back, patrol the spaces in midfield, and deliver his best performance in a red shirt in 12 long, distressing months.
And so it continued against Marseille. Within five minutes the pair had again combined to maximum effect. Rooney speared a gorgeous pass out to Ryan Giggs, then rampaged into the Marseille area to receive the return, before rolling his assist across the goal line for Hernandez to score.
Apparently unnoticed, ghosting in behind the visitors’ defence, it was the classic poacher’s goal.
His movement for that strike gave indication of why Ferguson preferred him to Berbatov. As Rooney approached, he was level with his marker, the former United man Gabriel Heinze.
Then, with a sudden application of pace, he left the Argentine flat-footed, adrift, looking vainly at the linesman for the get-out of offside. The Bulgarian has never moved like that in his life. He likes others to do his running.
Poor Heinze, he spent much of the game proving that the United manager was correct in his assessment four seasons ago that he had lost his effectiveness.
He cannot have expected to become so quickly re-acquainted with the Old Trafford turf, being constantly sat down by his young opponent who, while not sharing the gnarled physique of his Marseille counterpart Andre-Pierre Gignac, certainly lets defenders know he is around.
Not that there was much sympathy for Heinze. Memories of his attempt to join Liverpool were evident in the boos that greeted his every touch.
Mind, Hernandez’s is the kind of movement that can only prove effective if properly noted by team mates. And Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rooney were constantly alert to the possibilities of letting him loose.
Rooney several times rolled the most inviting passes behind the defence. It dovetailed perfectly into Ferguson’s favoured system in Europe of the rapid counter-attack.
Together with Nani, swiftly restored to fitness despite suffering what in his manager’s assessment sounded like amputation at Anfield, Hernandez offered endless threat, endless possibility, scaring Marseille with every incursion.
And, with time slipping away, just as United seemed to be ceding the initiative, just as fear of a sudden breakaway securing French qualification began to gnaw in the stands, just as the French fans found their voice, Chicharito shelled another.
This time Giggs was the supplier, slipping a neat reverse pass from the substitute Antonio Valencia into the path of the Mexican, who, standing in the poacher’s hole on the penalty spot, fired past Steve Mandanda.
Like all great goalscorers his timing was perfect: rarely can a goal have relieved such pressure.
It was as well he found his range. With ten minutes left, Marseille put themselves back within a breakaway of qualification when Heinze compounded the loathing oozing from the stands by bullying Wes Brown at a corner into conceding an own goal.
The French, unlike Arsenal on Saturday, took the opportunity of added time to assault United’s fraying confidence, waved on by their coach Didier Deschamps, wildly semaphoring from the dugout.
Unfortunately for Ferguson, circumstance prevented him making a time-wasting tactical change to ease the pressure. He had been obliged to use his reserves patching up the back line. First John O’Shea pulled up, then his replacement Rafael went down. United were losing right backs at such a rate, it appeared only a matter of time before Gary Neville was called for.
Thus fate conspired to the last against Berbatov. There was to be no late call. No chance to remind us of his skills. And the way Hernandez played last night, in the big games now piling up ahead for United, it is unlikely he will get the opportunity anytime soon.