In many ways, life could not be better at Old Trafford.
Manchester United's remarkable powers of recovery have never been stronger – this was the eighth time this season they have come from behind to win – and Sir Alex Ferguson's side are heading into a benign run of fixtures at a time when they top the table and are through to the knockout stages of the Champions League with a couple of games to spare.
The goals are flowing freely and it is easy to understand why Ferguson believes that scoring a century in the league, for the first time under his watch, is a realistic target. United scored three times in the second half against a rejuvenated Aston Villa side despite the fact that Danny Welbeck never got off the bench and Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie were strangely subdued until the latter rattled the crossbar twice in the space of 30 seconds in the final 20 minutes.
Ferguson, however, has so many attacking options that by the time Van Persie came to life Javier Hernández had already taken centre stage, scoring once and volleying home an equaliser via a deflection off Ron Vlaar. The winner was provided three minutes from time when Hernández headed Van Persie's free-kick beyond Brad Guzan in the Villa net.
Another game had been filed in the bulging folder marked "United acts of escapology" and Hernández has guaranteed himself a start against Norwich on Saturday. Ferguson promised that would be the case after the Mexican took his tally to seven in his past five matches, suggesting the United manager was spot on in the summer when he predicted "this season we'll see a better Chicharito".
After exploding on to the scene in 2010-11 – when his superb form marked the beginning of the end of Dimitar Berbatov's United career – Hernándezendured a difficult second season. The goals dried up and there were times when it looked as though the demands of playing for his country in successive summers – he starred for Mexico in the 2010 World Cup and at the Concacaf Gold Cup a year later – had caught up with him and taken the edge off his razor-sharp movement.
Ferguson decided to intervene, blocking Hernández from representing Mexico at the Olympics and giving the 24-year-old an extended rest, which appears to have done the trick. The beauty of Hernández is that he offers something different to Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck. He is a striker who plays on the shoulder of the last defender and has that knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Although Hernández's game-changing performance gave Ferguson reason to smile, it is not all good news for the United manager. This was the eighth time this season United have conceded two or more in a game in all competitions – something that happened on only seven occasions in 57 matches across the 2007-08 campaign, when United were built on much more solid foundations. As for the 16 goals that have been conceded in the league this season, it is United's poorest record at this stage since 2001-02.
Injuries have hardly helped – the back four have changed in 15 of United's 17 matches this season – but it must have been alarming for Ferguson to see Villa inflict such damage. Christian Benteke was unplayable at times, in much the same way that Marouane Fellaini, another towering figure, had been for Everton against United earlier in the season, while Andreas Weimann found pockets of space to score twice to put Villa 2-0 ahead.
It was certainly a chastening day for Chris Smalling, who was making his first league appearance of the season but departed battered and bruised after the outstanding Benteke gave him the rag-doll treatment. "Christian's not just a strong player, his technique is terrific and for someone 21 years of age, he can be anything he wants," said Paul Lambert. "His character is terrific. But my God, he's a proper No9." The Villa manager was entitled to be proud of his players, although in the end there was a sense of inevitably about the outcome.
"It was probably my fault for the first goal but we had to come out in the second half and put on a performance and luckily [Hernández] paid off with the goals," Smalling said. "We know we can play like that from the start. I don't know why we don't. It just took that kick up the bum to get us going."
Man of the match: Javier Hernández (Manchester United)
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image: © Audrey Pilato