He plays with a smile on his face, but Javier Hernández is deadly serious about scoring goals – as the No14 has proved in UEFA Champions League Group H.
Hernández's cult status at Old Trafford is not all down to such timely interventions as his match-winning double against SC Braga on matchday three. Manchester United FC's Mexican international plays football almost as quickly as he talks – in rapid-fire bursts, full of enthusiasm. "He's such a good professional and a fantastic personality," said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. "He loves life and loves playing football. Every training session he buzzes around with a big smile."
The 24-year-old's first season at Old Trafford included 13 Premier League goals, four in the UEFA Champions League, and decisive performances against Valencia CF and Olympique de Marseille. His speed and predatory instincts were obvious – as was his ingenuity in finding the net. He scored his first goal, against Chelsea FC, with his face and undid Stoke City FC with a brilliantly improvised finish with the back of his head.
Yet in 2011/12, the trademark smile disappeared. Opponents had grown wise to his lurking on the shoulder of the last man and he was shadowed anywhere near the box. He also underwent a physical transformation involving hours in the weight room to boost his strength for a league that demands extra muscle. That took some getting used to.
Yet 'Chicharito' (Little Pea) has overcome much bigger crises. While still in Mexico, two years before his move to Old Trafford, only much soul-searching stopped him giving up the game at the age of 20. He hadn't scored in two years. "I was in the reserves," he said in 2011. "Younger players were coming through ahead of me. I talked with my parents, grandparents, sister and girlfriend. They helped me realise this is what I am meant to do. That taught me if you want something but don't have it, you can get mad. I learned that it's important to enjoy life – and your football."
First on the agenda in summer 2012 was a well-earned rest. Hernández was set to play in the Olympic Games, but Sir Alex and Mexico agreed he could play for the senior side, but not the Games. Seeing his country win gold must have stung Hernández, as would the signing of Robin van Persie. However, the Dutchman's arrival has not derailed Sir Alex's plans for Hernández. "We'll see a better Chicharito this season," he said. "For four or five years he's played all through the summer. This year he's had a proper rest. I'm sure he'll reap the benefits."
The instant rapport between Wayne Rooney and Van Persie initially limited Hernández's chances this term – until he kick-started his campaign with two goals against SC Braga. Hernández followed that display with another winner from the bench against Chelsea in the Premier League after United had let slip a 2-0 lead. "Their second goal was a wake-up call," said Sir Alex. "He's brilliant in there. He took a lot of punishment too. There were a lot of tackles against him but he's courageous, a tough wee cookie. He's always going to be a threat to defenders."
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the latest edition of Champions Matchday, which is available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
©UEFA.com 1998-2015. All rights reserved.