Chicharito’s heroics proves why he should stay at Real Madrid

Real Madrid have an option to buy Javier Hernandez outright from Manchester United at season's end.

Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Image

MADRID —  

Halfway through the first half of Real Madrid’s tiring, rather helter-skelter win against Celta Vigo in Galicia late Sunday evening, the woman in the crowd with the Mexican flag had her chance to wave it vigorously in the grandstands. So did the older man with the hand-written placard that proclaimed Javier Hernandez, "the pride of Guanatos," of Guadalajarans.

Mexican madridistas, of which there are many, have needed to be patient these last nine months to celebrate the achievements of their compatriot. But for some of those for whom a fixture in Galicia was not too much of a stretch to reach, will have sensed this might be the weekend Hernandez would show his true worth.

Hernandez, or "Chicharito," as he best known well beyond his native Guadalajara, has in four days been worth three goals for Madrid, the club who have him on loan from Manchester United and who have used him sparingly for the duration of that hire. Against Celta he made only his third start in La Liga; he scored twice, each goal worth, in effect, a point. Madrid won 4-2 in a game that see-sawed through the first half, Celta leading initially, Madrid then leading twice over and with five goals shared in the 45 minutes.

The outcome looked settled only once Chicharito had scored Madrid’s fourth, after halftime. It was a stylish finish, too, a neat take to control a through-pass, then a precise shot, all at rapid pace, the goal of man whose confidence is suddenly high. He has had a spectacular week. Chicharito’s name is now recorded for history next the only goal scored over 180 minutes of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Atletico Madrid, struck three minutes from the end of that attritional tie. He became the only Real Madrid match-winner in eight matches against Atletico in the period since August.

The charmed Chicharito chapter may not last too much longer. He has started the last two games in succession only because Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are out injured, short-term, and because the capacity of Jese, the young Spanish striker, to dovetail with Cristiano Ronaldo is deemed less effective than the Mexican’s on account of Jese’s youth. Jese is 22; Chicharito is 26, veteran of two World Cups.

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His most recent of those, a stirring one for Mexico in Brazil until their luckless elimination by the Netherlands, seemed gloomy in many ways for Chicharito, whose principal role as an impact substitute was partly shaped by his lack of starting minutes the previous season at Manchester United. Madrid have never sought much more than a few minutes here and there from him either, until the coincidence of injuries to two other strikers, Bale and Benzema. Madrid have an option to buy Hernandez outright from United for around $21 million but are reluctant to exercise it; despite the points he earned against Celta, to keep Madrid within two points of La Liga leaders Barcelona with five games to play, and despite his providing the ticket to the Champions League semifinals.

Yet if colleagues could vote for 12 months more of Chicharito, then he would be there next year. The series of heartfelt, congratulatory embraces he received Sunday from the Madrid players on the bench when he was substituted, with Madrid 4-2 ahead, told of a popular teammate, a respected professional.

"Chicharito deserves everything that’s happening to him at the moment," said James Rodriguez, scorer of Madrid’s third goal, via a heavy deflection. "He has had to patient for his chances to play, and it’s quite right he should be having this run of form now."

The Mexican’s first goal of the evening, a drive from a tricky angle, was a reminder of his best asset, to spy opportunities and seize a high ratio of them. He has been on the pitch in this league campaign for a little over 500 minutes for Madrid and he has six goals from them. That’s better than a goal a game average.

"We have to take advantage of his moment of form," said Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid head coach. The temptation to start him against Almeria on Wednesday now grows, even if Benzema and Bale are showing promising signs of recovery. After Almeria, the Madrid fixture list has a daunting look; a trip to fourth-placed Sevilla, who are unbeaten at home in over a year, and fifth-placed Valencia at home with those matches sandwiched between the Champions League semi-final legs against Juventus.

The win at Celta will have a galvanising effect. A day earlier, Madrid had seen Barcelona win the Catalan derby against Espanyol 2-0, and viewed more evidence that the league leaders have their top trio of strikers — Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez — fit and fully primed for the climax of the campaign. Celta then made Madrid sweat and struggle to keep the distance between first and second at two points.

Better omens for Madrid can be found in recent history. Look over the remaining La Liga matches for each of the two pacesetters, and against the same opponents in the first round this season, Barcelona actually accumulated fewer points against the five teams they must still play than Madrid achieved against the five awaiting them, even though Valencia, who beat Madrid in January, are among the imminent visitors to Madrid. Crucially, Barca must still meet Atletico on the penultimate day.