RIO DE JANEIRO: It’s been an annus horribilis and a half for Chile’s iconic leader Alexis Sanchez, who is known as the “Nino Maravilla” — wonder-kid — in his homeland.
Chile’s most capped player of all time and record goalscorer, Sanchez is so popular in the South American country that he even stars in a film about himself that was released in Chile last month.
Having helped Chile win the last two Copa America competitions — including the one-off 100-year celebration Centenario in the United States in 2016 — a statue of him has even been erected in his home town Tocopilla.
But it’s been an otherwise dreadful last 18 months for the Manchester United winger on the pitch.
And Sanchez will be desperate to prove he has much more to offer than his recent club form suggests.
Since moving from Arsenal in January 2018, the vibrant and pacey forward has been a shadow of his former self.
He scored 60 goals in 123 league games for the Gunners, almost one in every two matches, but that ratio has dropped to less than one in 10 at United, where he had just nine Premier League starts and one goal in the last campaign.
He also had to sit out the 2018 World Cup in Russia as Chile hadn’t qualified.
At 30, Sanchez is far from finished but at Old Trafford there have been signs that he’s lost his spark.
The wonder kid has at times saved his best for the national team and a strong showing at the Copa could boost his options in the transfer market should he leave United, as expected, during the off season.
Return moves to either Italy or Spain have been mooted despite the financial burden any team would face in trying to match his reported 500,000 pounds ($636,000) a week wages.
And the signing of young Welsh winger Daniel James in direct competition for Sanchez’s preferred position on the left suggests that United have made their feelings clear.
The Copa America will come as welcome respite for Sanchez, not least because if fit he will certainly start for Chile — something that was increasingly not the case under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Old Trafford.
But his participation in Chile’s Group C opener against Japan next Monday is uncertain due to an ankle injury picked up at the end of the club season.
Sanchez was back working with the ball on Monday with his team-mates at their training base in Itu, near Sao Paulo.
“Without a doubt, Alexis is important for the national team,” said central midfielder Pablo Hernandez, describing the Manchester United forward as “a key piece” for the start of the tournament.
Team-mate Jose Pedro Fuenzalida said that Sanchez “raises the level of the team when he’s on form, because he’s a destabilizing player.”
Sanchez was key in Chile’s back-to-back Copa triumphs in 2015 and 2016: the first in the country’s history.
He scored the winning penalty in a shoot-out to beat Argentina in the final on home soil in 2015.
His absence was acutely felt in Chile’s one pre-Copa friendly international, a labored come-from-behind 2-1 victory against minnows Haiti on Thursday.
Spanish newspaper Marca has dismissed Chile’s chances of completing a hat-trick of victories as slim due to a lack of creativity, something that would be provided by Sanchez’s usual cut and thrust.
The squad has also been affected by rumors of in-fighting surrounding the omission of former captain and veteran goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
That has proved unpopular with many fans that have subsequently protested against Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda.
Sanchez, though, has taken on the role of leader to call on everyone to come together for the benefit of the team.
“We won two Copa America titles for the first time in Chile’s history,” he wrote on his social media platforms.
“It was by being united and with the support of all Chileans, that’s essential despite any differences.”
Chile’s hopes of retaining the trophy may rest on Sanchez re-discovering his form of old, which would also boost his chances of finding a way out of his United nightmare and starting afresh elsewhere.