Ferguson: Hernandez can match class of '99

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The Independent Online

The destinies of so many Premier League clubs this season are tied up with those in whom they have invested to find the net.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have made a club record £6.5m investment in Burnley's Steven Fletcher, having scored only 13 home goals throughout the last campaign. Birmingham City look up – literally – to the 6ft 8in Serbian Nikola Zigic after finding the net a pitiful 38 times, home and away. There is a belief that Marouane Chamakh could be the individual to take Arsenal back to the promised land.

And the story is no different at Manchester United, whose bid to reclaim the Premier League crown Chelsea wrenched away begins at home to Newcastle United this evening. The strikers keep coming thick and fast: the arrival of the 20-year-old Portuguese Bebe takes United's total to eight. But the question is whether one, or any, can haul the burden from Wayne Rooney.

Sir Alex Ferguson was still looking back to the 1999 vintage yesterday as he considered whether the quintet of Rooney, Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Federico Macheda, possibly assisted by Bebe when he settles, might deliver. The four strikers he had in that legendary year – Ole Gunar Solskjaer, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham – remain the best he has managed at United, he said.

"The attack that year was excellent and the most varied," Ferguson declared. "Superb players. We were very fortunate at that time. We hope this develops into the same level."

The difference between that year's vintage and this is that the two strikers who are the source of such excitement – Hernandez and Macheda – are yet to break through and answers to the question of whether they can surpass the boys of '99 cannot be rushed. "You have to wait," Ferguson cautioned. "With young players, you have to wait."

A gamble on Hernandez and Macheda does not constitute the same kind of risk Ferguson has made in his development of young defenders such as Jonny Evans, where the punt has paid off, and Rafael da Silva, who has cost his club at times. "Young players as forwards is not the same problem as young players as defenders," Ferguson said. "They will not cost you the games, though they may win you a few, as Macheda did a couple of years back against [Aston] Villa [en route to the title]."

But, while Ferguson offered another hint this weekend of the "cocky arrogance" that still needs attending to where Macheda is concerned, Owen's prospects of a big year are limited by his physical capabilities. There comes a time when the scar tissue of frequent operations makes the kind of stress Owen's game places on his hamstrings impossible to sustain.

Thus, it is Hernandez who might just be the missing link. The character is malleable and the hamstrings are willing, even though one fortuitous goal in the Community Shield (to go with a missed opportunity, don't forget) should not mask the fact that he has barely scraped the surface of English football. Yet he has been likened to Solskjaer by Ferguson and Paul Scholes – and that might be the fateful part.

Give or take a few goals, Rooney and Berbatov managed as many between them last season as Yorke and Cole plundered together 11 years earlier. It was just the support act that was missing. No one else chipped in for United like Solskjaer did, with 12 vital goals in that most celebrated of years. Ferguson senses that this latest raw recruit, sneaked under the radar as Solskjaer was when he arrived for £1m from Molde, might be the man for that job – and that 12 goals might not be beyond him. "Hopefully, young Hernandez will win many games for us," Ferguson said. "Because he looks goals all over."

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