Alexis Sánchez and Chile are in the Copa América semi-finals for the third consecutive tournament.
After getting turfed out in the quarter-finals in 2011, Chile went on an absolute tear. They improbably reached the final in 2015 before upsetting Argentina to win their first-ever major trophy. Then a year later in the Copa América Centenario they repeated the trick in almost every way, once again beating Argentina on penalties to retain their title.
Those triumphs were powered by Chile’s glorious golden generation, a group of players headed by Arturo Vidal, Claudio Bravo, Gary Medel and, yes, Sánchez. But since that 2016 triumph each of the golden generation has seen their stock fall in some way or another. Only Vidal has managed to retain his excellent reputation.
Sánchez’s backslide into ignominy has been particularly painful. Starting in 2017, many assumed his drop in form was just an act, a ruse, to force an exit from Arsenal (a club whose ambitions he had already outstripped). After flirting with Manchester City all summer, Sánchez got his move to Manchester at the start of 2018, but it was to United.
Still, he had the iconic no. 7 shirt and was an almost perfect mould of a José Mourinho type of player. This was going to be great, right? Wrong. Sánchez has been a spectacular flop at United.
He’s being paid something in the region of an eye-watering £500k per week and the sheer size of his wages have seemingly caused problems in the squad with the likes of David de Gea and Paul Pogba.
But all that would be tolerable if Sánchez was at least making good on his immense potential, but he’s not. At least, not for United. Put him in a Chile shirt and an entirely different beast emerges. The Sánchez of old. Hurrying and harrying opponents, driving forward with the ball, playing passes, taking men on. He’s back in all-action mode.
Two goals and an assist mark his Copa scoresheet so far, including a late winner with a delightfully deft back-post volley. Yeah, seriously. And it’s not just goals and assists, he picked those up even when being terrible for United. It’s also the fact that he is playing well.
So much of Sánchez is image and perception. If he’s seen to be full of energy and drive, all people will think about is his enormous upside. If he’s sulking around the pitch, the ball ricocheting off his shins, then people will only be reminded of how United paid so much to get so little.
But if this form keeps up, if Sánchez continues to play superbly and leads Chile back to another final (as he is sure to do) then people will start to take notice. For starters, Chile will be just the second side since the Copa América’s rebirth in 1975 to make three consecutive finals (Uruguay did it in the 1980s).
That is a phenomenal feat of longevity considering the quality South American sides and stars we have seen since 1975. Stars like Diego Maradona, Ronaldo and Leo Messi.
Maradona famously never won the Copa América in three attempts, Messi has also failed to win it, so Sánchez has already got one over on the great Argentines (directly so in Messi’s case as he bested him in two consecutive finals). Ronaldo, meanwhile, has two wins with Brazil. Sánchez can surpass Ronaldo if he leads Chile all the way to victory. In fact a win for Chile would make them the first side since Argentina in the 1940s to win three consecutive Copa crowns.
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What’s more, given the form he has displayed, he’d be a great choice for the tournament’s Golden Ball. He won the award in 2016 and to retain that as well as the trophy would be phenomenal. No one would be celebrating harder than United. Well, maybe Chileans, but still – United would be deliriously happy because it would have a huge impact on their transfer window in one of two ways.
Firstly it would remind people of how good Sánchez can be. This would make it so much easier for United to move Sánchez on. Right now the Chilean’s dead form as well as his colossal wage structure means that short of one of the Chinese Super League heavyweights coming in with a big offer, there’s no club on earth that would want to – and be able to – afford Sánchez.
ANALYSIS: How Sean Longstaff compares to the Manchester United midfielders he could potentially replace – https://t.co/wQp7garubG
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But if he was playing well? To the level we know he can reach? Then the likes of PSG would almost certainly be interested. Perhaps Bayern Munich too, as they seek a superstar to move them on from the ‘Robbery’ era. Sánchez came as part of a swap deal, so any transfer fee would be profit – with the added bonus of shifting his wages off the ledger.
The second way Sánchez’s form could help is more obvious: hey, Sánchez is good again! Why would United even want to sell Sánchez if the Chilean is playing well? Put him at the head of United’s attack in a fast and furious United side playing at the kind of pace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants them to operate at and things could be absolutely fabulous.
Sánchez is potentially the best player in the Premier League. To have him in the United side setting the tone and leading by example would make a tremendous difference as the Red Devils look to reassert themselves as a dominant force in English football.
But for all that to happen, for the redemption of Sánchez to become real, he has to guide Chile to Copa América glory once again. Only through international glory can the troubled Chilean save himself and save his club.