On Tuesday night, the Mexican with the clever, quicksilver movement reminded everyone of his worth, playing the Red Adair role to rescue United and put them within touching distance of the knockout stages of the Champions League.
This was only Hernàndez’s fourth start of the season. He was omitted from Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad for the visit to Goodison Park as the season opened, stirring speculation about his future. The mood music had already contained a hint of potential dissonance over the summer after Ferguson blocked Hernàndez’s participation in the Olympics, a frustration for the striker that must have deepened when Mexico overwhelmed Brazil in the Wembley final. Yet Hernàndez is rightly respected as a low-maintenance, high-quality professional and he knuckled down, focused in training and on Tuesday night took his chance, make that chances. A record of one goal in eight appearances now looks far better as three in nine.
Hernàndez possesses that precious gift of turning possibility into certainty. He received only 14 passes during his 80-minute shift yet scored twice, was denied another by an errant offside flag and created a gem of an opportunity for Nani. The Mexican is a highly efficient footballer, injecting value into most situations. For a striker who is hardly tall, Hernàndez is remarkably effective in the air, partly because of his spring, and also because of his intelligence at moving into dangerous positions.
He needed this performance. Competition is intense in United’s striking ranks. Van Persie and Rooney will start the major games, Welbeck’s stock rises while the presence of Shinji Kagawa has given Ferguson another attacking option. Ashley Young, although mainly used out wide, returned to the bench from injury. Hernàndez had to seize the moment.
He did. He kept ghosting away from his Braga markers, twice finding space to meet crosses from Kagawa and then an absolute gem of a delivery from Tom Cleverley, who was a consistently influential force. Hernàndez did so well that he departed to a standing ovation when withdrawn by Ferguson, perhaps having impressed enough to start against David Luiz and Gary Cahill at the Bridge on Sunday. Ferguson could now consider deploying Rooney more often in midfield behind a Van Persie-Hernàndez axis.
Rooney had started at the tip of a diamond but it was Braga, all sinewy, savvy movement, who glittered for the opening 20 minutes. United, their defence in disarray, were caught cold within 90 seconds.
Hardly had the Stretford End begun to absorb the implications of a central-midfielder Michael Carrick at centre-half, than Braga came calling, clearly sensing the uncertainty in United’s back-line. Ruben Amorim and Elderson began the move on the left, working the ball back to the assertive Hugo Viana, such an unfamiliar figure from the shadow of his £12 million Newcastle United self.
United failed to stop him and Viana lifted the ball across. Again United should have cleared. Instead, with little leadership in the centre of the rested Rio Ferdinand and injured Nemanja Vidic, United froze. Alan was too quick in mind and body for United’s left-back, Alex Buttner, and the Brazilian headed in.
The United fans, slowly going through their songbook, seemed to linger over Jaap Stam’s name with a certain poignancy. How they missed a commanding centre-back. Residents of the Stretford End then had ringside seats of further embarrassment. This time it was Carrick caught out. Eder turned him brilliantly, speeding towards the goal-line, then eluding Carrick again in a race into the box. The cutback was perfectly placed for Alan to shoot low past David De Gea.
This was a test of United’s resilience, tests they usually respond to, the comeback beginning after 25 minutes through Hernàndez. Van Persie, materialising on the left, turned away from Leandro Salino and Alan, getting fouled and falling to earth. The Serbian referee, Milorad Mazic, played a good advantage as the ball was claimed by Kagawa, who crossed for Hernàndez to head home.
A sense of relief settled on Old Trafford. Van Persie and Rooney then combined beautifully, almost creating an equaliser but Hernàndez’s flick was cleared. Buttner then took a tumble inelegantly on entering the box. But United were denied what looked a legitimate goal for Hernàndez by a poor offside call.
With Kagawa twisting his knee, Nani came on to the right and Rooney went left. Such was the congestion in the centre that United scavenged for hope out wide. On the hour, Rooney delivered a tempting cross that Hernàndez narrowly failed to make contact with. Two minutes later, Van Persie curled in a corner that clipped the back of the stooping Carrick and carried towards Jonny Evans. The Northern Ireland international missed with his first attempt but reacted well to poke the ball past Beto.
Hernàndez continued to command the attention. He then did brilliantly on the left, showing strength, determination and swift reactions. Buffeted by Nuno Coelho, Hernàndez leapt up, shrugged off Custodio’s attempt to drag him back and darted into the middle, bending a pass into the path of Nani. The ball rose up sweetly and Nani caught it well enough but Beto saved.
Hernàndez ’s outstanding work-rate was soon rewarded with a second goal 15 minutes from time. When Cleverley swept over a long cross from the right, a delivery that carried echoes of David Beckham in his pomp, Hernàndez had timed his run stealthily to score with an unstoppable header. On a big night for the Little Pea, the Mexican was then taken off by Ferguson, his rescue act complete, as Old Trafford stood in salute.
Man Utd: De Gea, Da Silva, Carrick, Evans, Buttner, Kagawa (Nani 46), Fletcher, Cleverley, Rooney, Hernandez (Giggs 79),van Persie. Subs: Johnstone, Ferdinand, Anderson, Young, Welbeck. Goals: Hernandez 25, Evans 62, Hernandez 75.
Braga: Beto, Leandro Salino, Nuno Andre, Paulo Vinicius, Elderson, Custodio, Hugo Viana, Ruben Amorim (Helder Barbosa 80), Alan (Mossoro 86), Ruben Micael (Ze Luis 88), Eder. Subs: Quim, Da Solva, Baiano, Anibal. Booked: Custodio, Elderson. Goals: Alan 2, 20.
Referee: M Mazic (Serbia).