Hernandez takes sting out of United title tale

Manchester United 1 Everton 0: Mexican relieves pressure ahead of big late-season clashes by heading Ferguson's men to brink of 19th championship
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The Independent Football

The roar when Javier Hernandez's header struck the back of the net was astonishing; it was the sound of the championship coming home.

When the sound of the crowd had faded there was only one relevant statistic; Manchester United need seven points to seize the title back and their final two matches are against Blackburn and Blackpool. Encounters with Arsenal and Chelsea, reefs upon which the club's bid for a 19th title might have foundered, are not irrelevant but they can almost afford to be lost.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who had prowled the touchline, pointing to his watch as if he were sponsored by Rolex, and then embraced his assistant, Mike Phelan, when Hernandez broke through, had no truck with these kinds of thoughts. He does not do losing of any kind.

"The thing that puzzles me is that people keep saying we still have to play Arsenal and Chelsea and they talk about these games as if we are going to lose them. Why can't we win these games? Why can't we go to the Emirates Stadium and win,as we have done previously? I told the players to forget about all that nonsense and just win."

This was, however, a match that took some winning. It bore comparisons with Tuesday night's stalemate at St James' Park in that Everton, like Newcastle, lacked centre-forwards worthy of the name.

They had one opportunity to snatch a first victory at Old Trafford since 1992 but when Jack Rodwell's shot came low through the legs of one of the defenders, he was denied by the very tips of Edwin van der Sar's gloves.

The 12th Premier League title of Ferguson's career may not receive a standing ovation. Had this side faced Newcastle in 1996, Kevin Keegan's outburst that he would "love it" if he beat United might not have become Sky Sports' most treasured moment. It is a team shorn of grandeur but Van der Sar's contribution in his final season of professional football to it has been immense. That the only points United have dropped here came when the Dutchman spilled an entirely routine cross seems almost wilfully perverse.

Everton's attack may have been inadequate but, marshalled by Phil Jagielka, who grew up a few miles from Old Trafford as a United fan, and Sylvain Distin, theirs was a sweat-soaked muscular kind of defending. It was on the point of holding out when Antonio Valencia's cross deflected off Distin. Hernandez anticipated the flight of the ball fractionally quicker than Tony Hibbert and Tim Howard found himself tangled in the Stretford End's netting as the young Mexican wheeled away.

This was his 19th goal of the season, as many as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer netted in his first campaign in a Manchester United shirt – in 1996-97. Then, Manchester United won a disjointed Premier League with a low points total and were beaten by German opposition in a European Cup semi-final.

On the ground where he had been judged as a Manchester United playerand found wanting, Howard would have felt he had done enough to earn a clean sheet. He had saved an earlierHernandez header spectacularly and in a sunlit, sleepy first half pushed away a drive two-handed.

Nevertheless there were nerves. Rio Ferdinand snapped at Darron Gibson for leaving him exposed and as if reading his captain's lips, Ferguson hauled the midfielder off for the cold-eyed experience of Ryan Giggs. Michael Owen whose time at Manchester United is coming to an unsatisfactory close, had already been introduced and his chief contribution had been to swing and miss at a cross from Fabio da Silva that deflected off Distin and struck the post.

"I could feel the goal coming," said Ferguson, who was so angered by Everton's time wasting that he suggested they should not have been awarded the extra few minutes of stoppage time that produced. "We had the momentum and the crowd was up and when the crowd get going here, they suck the ball in. You can just smell the history of this club when it comes to scoring late.

"We could and should have had this match finished by half-time but it is in the traditions of Manchester United that we don't do that. We always wait until the very end and keep everyone high on the edge of their seats but we get there."

Attendance: 75,300

Referee: Peter Walton

Man of the match: Hernandez

Match rating: 7/10