For Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, a dream move to Real Madrid has turned into a season of extreme frustration. Yet all the matches spent sat on the sidelines may suddenly seem worth it if he can take his chance to grab the spotlight in one of Real’s biggest game’s of the season -- against city rivals Atlético in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.
With Real facing a minor injury crisis that has claimed the casualties of forwards Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, Hernández is expected to make just his seventh start for the club at the Bernabeu on Wednesday. Lining up in a game that could well make or break the club’s season would be some turnaround for a player who had increasingly looked the sparest of spare part since joining on loan from Manchester United on the final day of last summer’s transfer window.
Hernández has started just two matches in the Champions League for Real Madrid this season, both against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets in the group stage. And, incredibly, if he were to be named in Carlo Ancelotti’s lineup against Atlético, it would be the 26-year-old’s first start in a Champions League knockout match since the 2011 final.
Such a scenario would have been almost unimaginable back then. At the end of Hernández’s first season in Europe since moving from hometown club Chivas Guadalajara, he appeared set to be a major figure for Manchester United and at the top level of European soccer. He scored 19 goals in all competitions during the 2010-2011 campaign and as the season progressed he went from a super-sub to forcing his way into Sir Alex Ferguson’s startling lineup. His goal was crucial in getting United past Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals, and, although he couldn’t prevent United going down to defeat against a sensational Barcelona team in the final, Hernández’s future looked bright.
Instead he has faced a tough few seasons since. His start to the following campaign was hampered by a concussion and he would start less than half of United’s Premier League games. Although he still got into double figures for league goals, he failed to find the back of the net as his team stunningly crashed out of the Champions League group stages. From there things were to go downhill at an even steeper rate for the joyous goal-getter.
In the summer of 2012, United spent big to capture striker Robin van Persie from rivals Arsenal and Hernández was relegated to a bit-part role in what turned out to be Ferguson’s final season in charge. Having again managed a respectable 10 goals in the Premier League, despite just nine starts, he was an unused substitute in both matches as United crashed out to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Things were to get bleaker still in David Moyes’ single season in charge at Old Trafford. This time there were just six Premier League appearances from the start and only two in the Champions League. Unutilized when United unimpressively squeaked past Olympiakos in the first Champions League knockout round, he was unable to rescue the team as a late substitute in the quarterfinal defeat to Bayern Munich.
There was little surprise when new manager Louis van Gaal deemed him surplus to requirements soon after taking charge last summer. Having spent so much time on the sidelines, Hernández looked to have lost his enthusiasm and the penalty-box sharpness that once made him such a goal-threat. Yet a move to Real Madrid, where his playing time has been diminished yet further in a squad full of attacking stars, has provided little chance for him to rediscover his best.
Such was Hernández’s plight, that there was even talk of his loan being cut short in January. Hernández himself revealed last month how difficult the campaign has been, and the sense has very much been of Madrid keeping him around simply in the event of an emergency.
That emergency has now arrived.
With both Benzema and Bale out, it has been widely predicted in Spain that Hernández will be the man Ancelotti turns to as a partner for Cristiano Ronaldo. Not that his ascension will have come completely out of the blue. In Real Madrid’s past two league matches, Hernández has played more minutes than he has done in the rest of the club’s matches in 2015 combined. And he has impressed. After scoring his first league goal since October in a win over Eibar, Hernández registered an assist in an accomplished showing against Malaga on Saturday having replaced the injured Bale in just the fifth minute.
Against Atlético, he now has a chance to make himself an unlikely hero. In a quarterfinal delicately poised at 0-0 and against a notoriously resolute Atlético defense, chances are likely to be few and far between. But if he can take one it could well lead Real to a first victory over their neighbors in eight attempts and preserve their quest to become the first team to retain the Champions League. And, while there is little prospect of Hernández remaining at Real Madrid beyond this summer, he could now make a major statement to potential new employers and leave an indelible mark at the club he dreamed of playing for since his days growing up in Guadalajara.