Hernandez heads United six clear

The Mexican had come closer than any other United player to

breaking the stubborn resistance of an Everton side who could have

had a couple of penalties and for whom goalkeeper Tim Howard was

outstanding. But additional heroic performances from Phil Jagielka

and Sylvain Distin counted for nothing as Hernandez rose to meet

Antonio Valencia’s far-post cross. The striker powered in his 19th

goal of a sensational debut campaign to send United into the

Champions League semi-final with Schalke in winning mood and

knowing if they can avoid defeat to Arsenal and Chelsea in their

next two league games, they will surely knock Liverpool off the

perch they have occupied for so long. Faced with a familiar

selection poser, knowing the following four games, starting with

the first leg of that Champions League semi-final against Schalke

in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday, would shape his side’s season, Sir

Alex Ferguson came up with a typical mixture of solid and

experimental. Jonny Evans was fortunate referee Peter Walton did

not view his tackle on Jermaine Beckford as a foul midway through

the opening period and Darron Gibson’s normally reliable long-range

shooting was way off beam. However, back in the dug-out after

completing his five-match touchline ban, Ferguson could be

reasonably pleased with his side’s first-half efforts, save for the

fact they did not actually score. The time when picking Hernandez

was viewed as a gamble has long since passed and predictably, the

fast-moving Mexican was the hosts’ biggest threat. In Howard

though, Hernandez was faced with a goalkeeper who has special

reason to do well at this venue given he enjoyed three seasons with

the Red Devils until joining the Goodison Park outfit, initially on

loan, in 2006. Ferguson’s concern about the American had more to do

with his concentration levels than any problems with ability. And

Howard proved his worth after 25 minutes when Hernandez was sent

sprinting through by Anderson’s slide-rule pass and let fly from an

acute angle. Howard plunged to his right to make an excellent save

by his near post. The American’s next effort was even better as he

beat away another Hernandez effort after the striker had been set

up by Valencia and Wayne Rooney. Hernandez then did Howard’s job

for him eight minutes from half-time. Valencia’s superior strength

allowed him to shove Leighton Baines off the ball and roll a pass

back to Nani, who had already wasted one early opportunity by

taking too long to decide what to do. This time, Nani went for goal

straight away. He would surely have found it too had the ball not

struck Hernandez, who had slipped as he made his way in the penalty

area, and deflected harmlessly away. There could barely be any

discussion about who was on top. Everton manager David Moyes could

take pride in his team’s battling qualities, which were exemplified

by the stoic defending of Jagielka and Distin, who managed to get

in the way of an Hernandez cross that was about to give Fabio a

tap-in. Moyes had even more reason to admire the manner his side

started the second period as United failed to rouse themselves. The

introduction of Tim Cahill helped and how Rio Ferdinand got away

with shoving second substitute Victor Anichebe over when the

Everton man had outpaced him in a race towards the United goal was

difficult to fathom. Everton’s luck was also out midway through the

half when Jack Rodwell let fly from the edge of the area with a

shot that took a deflection off Evans and was heading for the

bottom corner until Edwin van der Sar got the slightest touch. The

fluidity had disappeared from United’s play, so they dug into their

reserves of self-belief. Distin turned a Fabio cross onto his own

post before the introduction of Ryan Giggs, then Anderson got no

power at all into a 10-yard shot after being offered a decent sight

of goal. The hosts’ momentum gathered pace. Rooney’s free-kick

tipped over by Howard. Valencia’s thunderbolt cannoning into

Jagielka. Another brilliant Howard save to deny Hernandez. Could

Everton hold out when so many others had failed? Hernandez ensured

the answer was rather predictable.