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Chicharito and the Short Life of a European Striker

Javier Hernández was once a blessed striker, but it ended too early. Does he still have time to recover?
September 2, 2014, 8:00pm
Photo via Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Strikers are fragile, or at least our perceptions of them are. It takes a bad month for us to start wondering if they've lost "it"—that thing that helps them find space and place the ball where the goalkeeper isn't. Once they start to fail, we expect them to fail forever. (Whaddup, El Niño?) After an extended goalless spell, we leave them for dead.

Javier Hernández is halfway into the grave. He hasn't been in possession of "it" for a while now. It appears he's permanently misplaced what once made him special. Circa 2011, he had "it" securely in his back pocket. He formed one of the more dynamic attacking duos in the world with Wayne Rooney. He had the sort of verve strikers do when they're feeling themselves. He looked like he could score on anyone, mostly because he scored on everyone.

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But as swiftly as Chicharito arrived as the world's next great poacher, he vanished. Manchester United acquired Robin van Persie in the summer of 2012, and Chicharito subsequently dropped out of the rotation in which he used to be a staple. He'll be spend the 2014-15 season in Madrid on loan, playing for United's Spanish equivalents, because there's not a place for him—not even as a backup—in Manchester. This move probably won't end well. He'll be second-choice at yet another colossal club, and he's already got one strike against him in the minds of Madridistas: He's not Radamel Falcao.

El Real's number nines tend to catch an unbelievable amount of shit for being less than impeccable. Gonzalo Higuaín is an Argentina international who scored 107 times in 190 appearances for Madrid. He was deemed expendable and unceremoniously shipped off to Napoli last offseason. Benzema was brought in from Lyon a few summers ago to supplant Higuaín and has disappointed by being merely quite good. Chicharito has been acquired as depth, not to bump Benzema out of the starting spot, but the man he's replacing Álvaro Morata, is the only striker Madrid fans have actually liked in recent years, a canterano, and who didn't see enough of last season to start hating. If the Mexican scuffs a couple shots in his debut, disapproving murmurs will resound throughout the Bernabeu. It's an exceedingly tough crowd.

Madrid fans weren't expecting the club to acquire a backup attacker before the transfer deadline passed on Monday. There have been rumors that Falcao— who might be the best goal-scorer this side of Messi and Ronaldo— would be wearing all-white for years, and, as recently as a few days ago, it looked like it was finally going to happen before negotiations took a left turn and the Colombian ended up at Old Trafford. The signing would have been the logical conclusion to president Florentino Pérez's most Galacticoesque summer yet. A front line of Ronaldo, Bale, and Falcao is like starting the Sistine Chapel, which is something Pérez would absolutely do if the Chapel was a bit more mobile.

Madrid landed Chicharito instead— the guy who has been sent away to make room for Falcao. At this juncture of his career, he's not a figure who inspires confidence. He's only 26, but his sunken-in eyes give the impression he hasn't slept since his late teens, and we've seen a few too many shots of a forlorn Hernández in the dugout to think of him as spry and lively anymore. He spent the World Cup performing pretty well in a super-sub role for Mexico, but he also made noise about how unhappy he was not to be starting.

But just because Chicharito is on the downswing doesn't mean he can't recover. Eons and a few seasons are often treated as synonyms in soccer, but the fact is they're not. Wayyy back in the beginning of this decade, Chicharito proved he can move through defenses like a kite caught in a jetstream. He's in his mid-20s, his theoretical-if-not-actual prime. One assumes those legs still work and that he hasn't entirely forgotten how to thwack the ball where the goalkeeper isn't. He's got his recent form, Falcao's existence, and the weight of anti-expectation weighing him down, but Chicharito could still rediscover what made him exhilarating in the first place. He's got time and talent, even as it seems like both are running out.