London - Watching Javier Hernandez play football is sometimes like watching a man who has just woken from a long sleep. To describe the young Mexican as dozy is to give him more credit than he often deserves.
Then there are other occasions - occasions like this - when the Manchester United forward’s natural goal-scoring instincts spring to the fore to help him sniff out and convert chances with something approaching ridiculous ease. Though he is in his fourth season at Old Trafford, we don’t know much more about him than we did when he burst so wonderfully on to the scene in the 2010-11season.
Now 25, Hernandez still doesn’t seem to understand the offside rule, still can’t be relied upon to perform consistently but still has that priceless knack of scoring important goals. On Tuesday night he scored two, the first thumped home from the penalty spot in the first half and the second headed in at the Stretford End after Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn had palmed his first effort straight up into the air.
There were other moments to savour, too, namely a header that flew inches over and, best of all, a scooped shot on the turn that rolled only inches wide and, remarkably, came when Hernandez was sitting on his backside and facing the wrong way. His goals, and late efforts from Phil Jones and Fabio, saw United through to the quarter-finals with a win against a Norwich team simply glad that midfielder Robert Snodgrass left the field awake after a clash of heads in the second half had left him unconscious for at least five minutes.
This competition doesn’t keep David Moyes awake at night. Nevertheless, the United manager knows that significant progress in any competition will help ease the burden of expectation and he selected a team that, at least in part, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Barclays Premier League.
His two main centre forwards, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, were not involved at the start but the other end of Moyes’ formation saw Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence. Elsewhere, there were starts for Wilfried Zaha - his first since the Community Shield in August - and Adnan Januzaj as Moyes placed his faith in his younger forwards.
Norwich were somewhat below strength, featuring only three players who had started against Cardiff at the weekend, so it was no surprise to see United take early control. It was Januzaj who won the penalty that allowed Hernandez to give United a 20th-minute lead but it was Zaha who started the game the brighter.
The young England winger’s low cross from the right in the 13th minute allowed a falling Hernandez to turn and hook a shot just wide of the near post, while another venture to the byline saw Norwich defenders hastily clearing from beneath their own bar. United had started modestly but were certainly the better team without creating bundles of chances. When they took the lead, they did so with the help of some generous refereeing from Kevin Friend.
Ashley Young did well to feed the ball in to Januzaj on the left and his touch was good. How much contact Leroy Fer made before the 18-year-old fell to earth, though, is debatable. Hernandez didn’t care, driving home with his right foot from the spot.
Hernandez headed a free-kick straight at goalkeeper Bunn in the 25th minute before Januzaj curled a shot with his left instep that had Bunn scrambling across goal as it passed inches wide. Hernandez went close again a minute before the interval as his close-range shot cannoned back from a defender’s legs and the half ended with Norwich having mustered just one real effort on goal, defender Ryan Bennett’s powerful header bouncing up off the turf and into Anders Lindegaard’s arms.
Norwich looked a little more confident after the break. Fer headed over from a free-kick rather harshly awarded against Zaha in the 49th minute before Johan Elmander nudged a first-time effort across goal and inches wide. That was as good as it got for Norwich as United broke down the left to score again.
Hernandez led the break before feeding Alexander Buttner, who spotted the Mexican dashing into the penalty area and found his head with a perfect cross.Shortly afterwards, Snodgrass came close to scoring with a header and replays showed he was unconscious before he hit the floor after a clash of heads. Lindegaard reacted quickly to turn him to the recovery position before medics arrived.
Snodgrass eventually left on a stretcher and the game threatened to fizzle out before Jones scored with a volley from 12 yards two minutes from time.With 11 minutes added because of the injury to Snodgrass, there was still time for Fabio to come on and score the fourth after he was played clear by another substitute, Rooney.