Manchester United sign 'Little Pea' to fill major squad gap

Arrival of 21-year-old Mexican striker adds to questions over future of Berbatov
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The Independent Football

A new signing who answers to the nickname of "Little Pea" might not have the streets of Stretford humming with expectation in the aftermath of Champions League elimination, but Manchester United's announcement of the purchase of the 21-year-old Mexican striker Javier Hernandez, otherwise known as Chicharito, was something to take away the raw memory of the manner of defeat to Bayern Munich.

Conspiracy theorists will say the announcement was choreographed to bolster the impression that United are not a club in reverse; that the Glazer family have the means to spend – but only time will tell whether the 5ft 9in striker will be the new Carlos Tevez, or just another Zoran Tosic. His price tag is unclear – probably no more than £8m since only a year ago Hernandez was contemplating giving up the game and returning to education after struggling to make his way at Mexican club side Chivas de Guadalajara.

But the results since have been spectacular, Hernandez scored 11 of Chivas' 23 goals last year in 17 games, following up with eight more in nine games this year and three goals in 90 minutes for the national side. The player, whose father and grandfather both played World Cup football for Mexico in the 1986 and 1954 tournaments respectively, is strong in the air despite his modest size. His first three goals for the national side came with his head and some consider him the best Mexican goalscoring prospect since the emergence of Hugo Sanchez 30 years ago.

"You think, OK, here's this little midget,'' said Chivas forward Jesus Padilla, who played with Hernandez for three years. "But he's got some serious hops. He's amazing in the air."

That said, there has not been too much of any Mexican vintage in the Premier League in recent years – Arsenal's Carlos Vela and Nery Castillo, once of Manchester City, have hardly excelled – and given the painful dependence on Wayne Rooney, which has become so evident in the past 10 days, United cannot afford any more unreliable strikers. That, by dint of either injury or lack of form, Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov have most definitely become.

Where for Berbatov now? It is hard to imagine that his anaemic contribution against Chelsea last week will not feature in the manager's mind when he surveys the highs and lows of the season. The problem, should Sir Alex Ferguson decide Berbatov is better off elsewhere, is how to avoid taking a serious hit on the £30.75m laid out on a player now 29 years old, whose value has plummeted.

The Mexican purchase is difficult to rationalise, given the presence of Federico Macheda – "as good a talent as I've seen in a young player as a centre forward," Ferguson said of him last Friday – and Danny Welbeck, whom the manager was touting as a possible England World Cup prospect last autumn. But he looks good on YouTube.

It is the other end of United's team that gives cause for concern. Had John O'Shea's recuperation from a leg injury come earlier, or Wes Brown been available, then Rafael da Silva might not have found himself staring into the whites of Franck Ribéry's eyes on Wednesday. But ifs and buts such as these have plagued United over the past two years. The £10m purchase of Chris Smalling seems designed to prepare for the gap left by Nemanja Vidic, if he leaves, though the signing from Fulham is another who arrives with potential, not proof of delivery.

Darren Fletcher insisted yesterday that United are not overly dependent on Rooney, who is now expected to be out until the Manchester derby at Eastlands in eight days' time. "Any team would miss him," said Fletcher, "but we believe we have enough quality to deal without him." There has been much evidence to the contrary.