If Barcelona fans thought they might miss the pace, intelligence and threat posed by Lionel Messi, one man among their ranks had other ideas. Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez, fresh from netting his first hat-trick for the Catalan club in the 4-0 rout over Elche, has shown he is more than capable of taking over Messi’s mantle.
Sanchez is currently in his third season at Barcelona. His form was initially inconsistent, and there were rumours in the English press citing interest from Premier League clubs Manchester City and Manchester United, as reported by Nick Lustig in The Daily Star as recently as three months ago.
A succession of niggling injuries hindered his progress upon arrival in Spain, and after pulling up trees in Italy with Udinese, Alexis took a while to adapt to the rigours of performing week in, week out for such a gargantuan outfit as Barcelona.
Sanchez had arrived in Italy as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and also took his time in adapting to new surroundings. He was twice loaned back to South America, first with Chilean giants Colo Colo and then with Argentine club River Plate, before becoming a hugely influential player at the Italian outfit.
His versatility along the front line was enormously beneficial to a young, promising player in a famously static league. Sanchez can play anywhere along the forward line, and his willingness to move and switch not only makes him almost impossible to mark, it gives him a far greater chance of defying defenders.
When a player constantly floats from one flank to the other, then back into the middle, it can cause huge problems for defenders and holding midfielders alike who are trying to keep track of his movements.
The responsibility for picking up a player constantly on the move can become lost. And at Udinese, his ability to find space gave him the freedom of the attacking third, working in tandem with Italian veteran Antonio Di Natale.
In three full seasons in Italy he became, alongside the Italian attacker, the focal point of the side as they qualified for the UEFA Champions League in the 2010/11 season. The club finished fourth in Serie A, with Di Natale scoring 28 goals to top the scoring charts for the second successive season.
But it was his strike partner who was to become one of the most sought-after players in Europe. Sanchez had proved he could cut it in Europe; now he needed to prove he had what it took to make it to the top echelons of the Old Continent’s domestic game.
Slowly but surely, he is making good on the promise he has shown. Playing in the same team as the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, who can consistently provide the finest, most accurate service possible to one of the most dangerous front trios in football, can only benefit Sanchez in the long run.
He has a contract with Barcelona until 2016. Continue a rich vein of form and that will surely be up before renewal before long.
He already has 11 league goals this season, only one behind his personal best in Spain. In this World Cup year, he is proving himself a force to be reckoned with.
And for Chile to make progress at the FIFA World Cup this year, Alexis will need to translate that form to the international arena. There is no doubt his country has been handed one of the trickier group draws.
Chile sit in Group B alongside European juggernauts Spain and Holland, the two finalists from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But Chile showed they are no pushovers last November.
In a friendly at Wembley Stadium, they played England off the park in a more than comfortable 2-0 win for the South Americans. The scorer of the visitors’ goals? Alexis Sanchez, repeating Marcelo Salas’ feat of 1998.
In 2014, his star can keep on rising on both domestic and international fronts.