By Liam Twomey at Villa Park
Saturday’s comeback victory over Aston Villa would not feature in any definitive list of the greatest Manchester United performances of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 remarkable years at the helm, but it would be hard to devise a more fitting way to commemorate the milestone.
For 50 minutes they were assured yet sluggish, disorganised in defence and toothless in attack, and a fearless young Aston Villa team did their best to make them pay. But those familiar with the well-worn narrative of Ferguson’s United knew to expect a twist in the tale, and it was duly delivered.
Andreas Weimann’s well-worked double had given a disciplined and confident Villa hope of a first home Premier League win over United for 17 years, but Chicharito’s wonderfully-taken first just before the hour planted the seed of doubt. When skipper Ron Vlaar deflected the Mexican’s strike into his own net five minutes later, the visitors smelled blood.
Gradually the hosts tired while Ferguson’s men upped the pressure. Robin van Persie rattled the crossbar twice. A winner was inevitable and, three minutes from time, Chicharito found it. Villa, like so many before them, took positives. United opted instead for the points.
Comebacks became the defining feature of the legends of Ferguson and United in Barcelona 13 years ago, at the expense of a marvellous Bayern Munich side in the 1999 Champions League final. In the years since there have been too many to mention, and this term they have already come from behind to win eight times. A United comeback is exceptional only in that it has become the rule.
In that sense, the kind of performance which highlighted both the enduring weaknesses and characteristic strengths of English football’s dominant force was the ultimate celebration of 26 unparalleled years. That Chicharito, too, should be the hero on this of all days felt almost like divine providence.
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Of the hundreds of players who have passed through Old Trafford over the past two-and-a-half decades, the Mexican is far from the most gifted. He lacks the style and panache of Eric Cantona, the flair and power of Cristiano Ronaldo, or the flawless technique of Paul Scholes. He is a fundamentally one-dimensional footballer whose impact on a match outside the penalty area can often be minimal.
But few embody the heart and soul of what Ferguson has created quite like Chicharito. He trusts his ability unwaveringly without ever falling into the trap of complacency or arrogance.
Instead, he works even harder, imbued with the kind of relentless drive and need to win that his manager has practised and preached more successfully than any other in the modern era. In the 95th minute at Villa Park, having propelled his side to an unlikely victory, he hassled and harried the Villa defence at full pace, as if trying to convince the world his work was not yet done.
And then there are the goals. Lots of them. A remarkable 20 in his first season as an unknown in England, followed by 12 in a second campaign undermined by a drop in appearances and the draining effect of a packed summer international schedule with Mexico. Rested and fresh this time around but again far from a regular starter, he already has eight to his name.
The timing, pace and direction of Chicharito’s movement are all sensational, and his knack for finding the back of the net from any height or distance within 18 yards is truly uncanny. Goalscorers of such ilk can be refined by training, but they are born to their art.
So often the saviour from the bench, the comparisons between the Mexican and Old Trafford favourite Ole Gunner Solskjaer are obvious. But the lethal Norwegian only managed 10 Premier League goals as substitute, while his anointed successor already has 16. Chicharito has surpassed the numbers. With time and a few more performances like this, he can surpass the legend too.
For Ferguson and United, the issue of legacy has long since been settled. But on the evidence of Saturday evening, the implacable hunger for success which has defined this man and this club for much of the last 26 years shows no sign of being sated just yet.
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