Chile kick off their Copa America defence on Monday against Japan, with their star striker more motivated than ever after his club woes
When Alexis Sanchez packed his suitcases, bade farewell to his Manchester United team-mates for the summer and flew back across the Atlantic Ocean to his native Chile, he did so in the hope that a significant amount of baggage would stay behind.
The forward endured a nightmare season in 2018-19, beyond his worst fears. But now he has the chance to turn the page and deliver with his beloved Roja, those United woes the furthest thing from his mind as he gears up for what will be a crucial Copa America from his perspective.
It is difficult to put into words just how disappointing the past season was for a man who, lest we forget, little more than 18 months ago was one of the transfer window’s hottest properties and subject of a bidding war between the two Manchester giants. Bare statistics, however, can tell part of the story.
Sanchez scored just two goals in all competitions, the lowest haul in his entire professional career (even in his very first season as a 16-year-old with Cobreloa he managed three). Ignored by both Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for large swathes of the campaign, the Chilean was restricted to nine Premier League starts and rarely looked likely to make an impact when he did get the opportunity.
He is the butt of all jokes at Old Trafford, an outrageously expensive failure. With Chile, however, things are different. Sanchez is a living idol in his home country, the inspiration behind two consecutive Copa America triumphs and the symbol of the fight and tenacity synonymous with the Roja’s football.
As he prepares to lead from the front again in Brazil at the Copa, he knows that this will be his chance to prove to the world he still has something to offer as an elite player – and to any watching scouts as well.
Just like their star, Chile have not exactly been firing on all cylinders as of late. The euphoria of back-to-back Copas America under Jorge Sampaoli and Juan Antonio Pizzi was followed by the disappointment of failure to reach the following World Cup, a bitter blow after two relatively comfortable qualification campaigns in 2010 and 2014.
Results since under coach Reinaldo Rueda have been distinctly underwhelming, including defeats at the hands of Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica. But the bulk of the squad that fought to Copa glory in 2015 and 2016 remains intact, led by Sanchez, who is battling an ankle injury he has carried since May.
“In the Copa America he has the chance to show all that he is capable of,” Rueda signalled to Lance in the build-up to Chile’s debut in the competition against Japan. “The presence of [Arturo] Vidal, [Gary] Medel and Alexis is crucial.
“They are players who already know the demands and intensity of a championship of this nature. They have already tasted success in the competition and they know how to transmit calm and maturity to their team-mates.”
With 124 games and 41 goals under his belt, not to mention those two Copa medals, Sanchez certainly knows how to deliver at international level and will not shirk the challenge in Brazil. Whether a sterling performance at this year’s tournament will be enough to earn him a move is another story.
The star’s £390,000-a-week wages are positively prohibitive to any potential suitor, of which there have been few so far in the transfer window. With United apparently equally determined to dispense with his services, something will have to give in the coming weeks to make a sale, be it an initial loan move or a permanent deal, acceptable to buyer and player alike.
Sanchez, a fiercely motivated, proud competitor who has never been content with merely sitting on the sidelines and picking up pay cheques, knows that a strong showing at this Copa would go a long way towards ending that impasse and proving to Europe’s elite that at 30 and despite recent woes he still has what it takes to excel at the top level.
A repeat of those heroics in 2015 and 2016 looks unlikely given Chile’s own weaknesses. The Roja will nevertheless be hoping to escape from a group completed by Uruguay and Ecuador – with Sanchez additionally playing for his own future as he looks to forget a catastrophic club season and lead his nation to glory once more.