Sanchez set for starring role
"Chile is going to win the World Cup. If I didn't believe this, I'd have stayed at home watching the tournament on TV."
This daring statement, made half seriously, half tongue-in-cheek last week to Brazilian journal O Globo, belongs to Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez, the Barcelona forward who has just completed the most prolific season of his career. After 21 goals and 13 assists in 54 matches with the Catalans, and having scored in Chile's 3-1 opening victory over Australia, the 25-year-old looks every bit ready to take on Spain in what is likely to be the biggest game of his career to date.
The Spanish national team knows him well -- due to the three seasons he's already played in La Liga -- and have special insight on the winger thanks to the seven Barcelona teammates selected in their squad. On Monday, Pedro Rodriguez was glowing in his praise when asked about his colleague: "Alexis is the biggest star of Chile, he's in fantastic shape. He tends to shine more with them than with Barcelona as in our team other players take more responsibility, but he's improved a lot and was great for us this season."
Sanchez's ability to improve is nothing new. Nicknamed "Niño Maravilla" (Wonder Kid), while many may choose to remember some of his mistakes in front of the goal, a more comprehensive analysis shows that his performances have improved with each passing year since he arrived in Europe in 2008.
His third seasons for both Udinese in Italy and Barcelona in Spain were outstanding -- the former earning him the Gazzetta dello Sport Award for the best player of the Serie A in the 2010-11 season, the latter appeasing most of the doubts generated by his first two years with the Azulgrana thanks to his increased number of goals and assists.
If one looks a bit further back, it's easy to notice quick development as a constant in the Chilean's career. From his beginnings in Cobreloa to his title-winning sessions with Colo Colo -- both in Chile -- and River Plate, Sanchez quickly became first choice for each of his coaches and increased his importance in the team, not always having to score to influence the flow of matches. With all that background, it's not surprising that his past season with Barcelona has been by far the best of an increasingly remarkable career, and makes one wonder whether we've seen his real potential yet.
However, that does not mean that Sanchez has become a favourite for all of the Camp Nou just yet. His impressive numbers this season may have provided him with growing respect from colleagues and supporters alike, but in some Barcelona circles there's still that shadow of doubt that says the Chilean, gifted with amazing physical talent, lacks the touch of class or mental clarity in front of goal that he needs to truly succeed.
Not even beautifully taken goals in key matches this year -- such as the lovely chip over Diego Lopez vs. Real Madrid, or the screamer that seemed to give Barcelona the title at their own stadium before Atletico drew level in the last match of the season -- have been able to erase memories of missed sitters or poor decisions that have seemed to haunt the Chilean.
This summer, as it has in the previous two, his name keeps cropping up in transfer gossip -- most notably with links to Liverpool. However, at least on paper, Sanchez possesses the athleticism and commitment that new manager Luis Enrique is searching for. For better or worse, the tireless Chilean looks bound to generate doubts among the Azulgrana faithful.
Those doubts do not exist when he wears the original La Roja -- Chileans having a far older claim to the nickname than the Spaniards. His precocious career with the national team has seen him score 23 times in 65 matches already, taking advantage of a very early debut in 2006 at the tender age of 18. Sanchez got his first goal for Chile the following year and then managed to become one of manager Marcelo Bielsa's untouchables, playing his first World Cup in South Africa 2010 when he was only 21.
His characteristics fitted Bielsa's model perfectly, as his athleticism allowed Chile to keep up the pressure on the opposition defence when they tried to build from the back, and then to counter rapidly whenever his team won the ball.
The Argentinean coach may have moved on, but that made no difference in Sanchez's international career. Since coach Jorge Sampaoli took over, he gave the Barcelona forward the reins to lead the line, and directed the steel of Arturo Vidal and the unpredictable talent of Jorge Valdivia to feed him constantly. In just the past 12 months, Alexis has already scored nine times for Chile, including a brace at Wembley last November in a friendly match versus England. No matter whether you look at his Barcelona numbers or his Chile ones, this season has been fantastic for Sanchez, the perfect warm-up for a potential World Cup explosion.
Ironically, the Barcelona player will have to face a decent number of his current teammates in one of the most important matches of his intense career. A win over Spain would send Chile straight to the knockout stages of this World Cup, while that result could mean immediate elimination for the title-holders if the Dutch beat Australia.
"Spain is the current champion and it's good to hear that they respect us," Sanchez said to O Globo, referring to Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque's repeated words of caution about the Chileans. But, in the case of Sanchez, too much caution might not be enough for the Spaniards.