Can Chicharito fire Leverkusen back into Europe?

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez. (Martin Meissner/AP)

Chicharito is in a short-term frame of mind.

Frozen out at Manchester United by manager Louis van Gaal, the 27-year-old Mexican striker has been on the boil since September and a €12 million move to Bayer Leverkusen.

Only Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have found the back of the net more often in the Bundesliga, and with 19 tallies in all competitions he has so far out-produced United marksmen Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial combined.

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“It was like I was playing sometimes and then returning to the bench,” he told the Orlando Sentinel during pre-Ruckrunde training in Florida. “People sometimes think the confidence is with goals, but I don’t think like that. I think confidence is to play day-to-day, to get rhythm.”

Day-to-day, one game at a time—this is the new, mature, slightly jaded outlook of a player who hasn’t so enjoyed his football since the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.

Chicharito, don’t forget, started a Champions League final in his first season with United, and his 10 Premier League goals in Ferguson’s last helped deliver a second Premier League title in three years.

But he never caught on with either David Moyes or Van Gaal—or, for that matter, with Carlo Ancelotti while on loan at Real Madrid—so it was surely with equal parts relief and excitement that he realized the favour with which he found himself under Roger Schmidt.

“He’s integrated himself very well into our style of play,” remarked the Leverkusen manager back in November, following his star striker’s brace in a 3-1 win at Eintracht Frankfurt that lifted the side from eighth to sixth in the table. “The fact he’s scoring so often is extraordinary.”

The thing is, he’s had to.

Although they completed the Hinrunde in fifth spot and just two points back of Borussia Monchengladbach and the Champions League places, Leverkusen’s first half of the Bundesliga campaign was an exercise in volatility saved mainly by the midfield play of Kevin Kampl and the goals of Chicharito.

Midfielders Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer missed extended spells through injury; summer acquisition Charles Aranguiz tore his Achilles in August; playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu ran hot and cold; forward Stefan Kiessling scored a paltry three goals in the league.

Chicharito’s performances masked these and other issues at BayArena. And assuming the injury troubles, deficiencies in form and general lack of depth continue, at least in part, to provide Leverkusen an uphill battle for top-four placement, they’ll need the Mexico international to rediscover his first-half form—at the very least.

“Chicharito has played a big part in our success so far,” admitted sporting director Rudi Voller, who was asked about bids for his player by Sky Sports in early January. “It’s easy to reject offers when you are in a position in which you don’t need to sell.”

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He couldn’t if he wanted to—such has been the Mexico international’s importance since signing a three-year deal.

Of course, Chicharito, himself, may well consider his options at season’s end. He’s already admitted as much, and no doubt the pay rise accompanying a switch to Arsenal or Liverpool would be difficult to reject.

For now, however, he’s focussed solely on the Ruckrunde, on picking up where he left off in December and firing his team to success.

“I want to finish in the top four in the Bundesliga—again in the Champions League,” he said in a recent interview with Bild. “In the Europa League and [DFB] Cup we want to go as far as we can. In any competition you have to think about getting the maximum.”

Leverkusen are already getting it from him. And given their dependence on his form as they pursue Champions League qualification, his short-term thinking should suit them just fine.

“Now,” he says, “it starts again from the beginning.”

Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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