Mexico's all-time leading goal-scorer still has plenty to prove.
While Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez will go down as one of his country's greats because of his success not only with the national team but also at the club level with Manchester United, Real Madrid and now Bayer Leverkusen, his legacy is not sealed. The striker has plenty of important goals among the 47 he has netted for El Tri, but Chicharito has struggled to find the net when they've needed him most, leaving the responsibility of scoring in big matches to other players.
Not since four years ago at the Confederations Cup in Brazil has the forward found the back of the net in multiple matches at a summer tournament, scoring from the penalty spot against Italy and netting a double against Japan after the team's fate already was sealed under coach Chepo de la Torre.
A year later at the World Cup, with Oribe Peralta in stunning form heading into the tournament and coach Miguel Herrera favoring Giovani dos Santos as Peralta's partner, Chicharito was reduced to a super-sub role .
“I’ve never seen myself as a sub and I don’t like being one,” Hernandez said at the time. “And, believe me, I am tired of a lot of people seeing me that way, as a 'super-sub'. I’m a player that has made a difference as a starter."
Herrera was unmoved though, playing Chicharito just 75 minutes over four matches. Chicharito did find the net once at the World Cup in Brazil, pushing the scoreline to 3-0 in Mexico's final group match, a 3-1 win against Croatia. But while the tournament was a relative success for Herrera's side, it was a personal disappointment for Hernandez.
So too was the Gold Cup the next year, which he was set to participate in after a season during which he saw sporadic time on loan with Real Madrid. But a broken collarbone suffered in a pre-tournament friendly against Honduras meant he would miss the tournament, which Mexico went on to win.
Last year, the stage was set after a superb season with Bayer Leverkusen for Chicharito to shine in the Copa America Centenario. Playing in the United States in front of an adoring audience, Chicharito nabbed the winner in a friendly game against Chile and headed into the tournament just two goals away from breaking Jared Borgetti's mark as Mexico's all-time leading scorer. He got one, heading in a cross from Jesus Corona in a win over Jamaica. Ultimately, though, he and Mexico disappointed, flaming out in spectacular fashion with a 7-0 loss to the same Chile team they'd defeated just weeks before in the friendly. That elusive tying goal wouldn't come until March.
While reigning world champion Germany is sending an alternate team to Russia and Portugal's coach Fernando Santos made clear that qualifying for the World Cup is more of a priority than this tournament for his Euro champions, Mexico is taking its best possible group to the tournament in hopes of winning it all. Much of that hinges on whether or not Chicharito is able to find goals.
If he struggles, Juan Carlos Osorio — a coach who already will rotate his lineup with frequency — may be inclined to see if Raul Jimenez can play the center-forward role better than Hernandez. That would be a big blow, so finding and converting scoring chances will be critical for Chicharito to help El Tri out of the group and into the knockout stages where just two wins win you the trophy.
It's not only the desire to help his country that obligates the 29-year-old to shine at this summer's tournament. Hernandez looks to be headed away from Leverkusen this offseason, likely making his last move within Europe before coming to the green (with dollars) pastures of MLS. He slumped at the end of the season, and a few goals against outfits like Portugal or Russia could gin up interest from teams getting set for European football in the 2017-18 campaign.
Chicharito clearly has the talent to make that happen. His managers, past and present believe in him. Osorio put him among the game's best finishers after he broke the record, while Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho bemoaned the club's decision to let the forward leave before his arrival as manager. You don't become your country's leading scorer by mistake — and he even can point to his 2010 World Cup as an excellent summer tournament showing with his goals against Argentina and France.
But seven years have passed since those performances, and it's time for Chicharito to once again bring his best to his nation's biggest tournament of the year.