Colombia have been highly impressive on their road to the World Cup quarter-finals. They have enthralled with the vibrancy of their attacking play while maintaining a solid defensive base that has seen them concede just two goals.
James Rodriguez has undoubtedly been their star turn, but defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez has quietly had an excellent tournament and could stake a claim to being Colombia's unsung hero thus far.
There was a moment in his side's last-16 victory over Uruguay on Saturday that typified what Sanchez brings to the team.
Just a few minutes after Rodriguez's superb opener, Cristian Rodriguez stole a march on Pablo Armero at the far post and was poised to finish as a cross was floated over from the left. Sanchez arrived on the scene at the last moment and headed the ball behind for a corner.
It was neither spectacular nor eye-catching, but that is Sanchez's purview—to cut out danger with minimum fuss.
Sanchez was raised in poverty in Quidbo, a chaotic jungle town near the frontier with Panama in the Choco district of north-west Colombia. His father was a cabinet maker, and though he worked hard there wasn't always enough money to put a meal on the table at the end of the day.
Sanchez spent hours upon hours playing football in the streets, honing the skills that would provide him with an escape route from his life of hardship.
After graduating from the Alexis Garcia football academy in Medellin, Sanchez was signed by Uruguayan club Danubio at the age of 17. After two years there, he moved on to River Plate de Montevideo, and then onward to Europe with Valenciennes. He spent last season in La Liga with Elche.
His international debut came against Panama in 2007, and he has been a regular in the national-team setup ever since. He drew plaudits for his excellent man-marking job on Lionel Messi during the 2011 Copa America.
Sanchez was part of the starting lineup for Jose Pekerman's first match in charge of Colombia—against Mexico in February of 2012—and has established himself as a key component of the Argentinian's first-choice XI.
"I’ve learned a lot from him," Sanchez told FIFA.com last year. "All his advice has really helped me, but his suggestion that I let my natural game flow and not do things systematically has changed me and helped me grow."
Sanchez is a pure defensive midfielder, content to sit in front of the back four and cut out opposition threats at source. He reads the game well, is strong in the tackle and is also good in the air. When he wins possession, he distributes simply but effectively over short distances.
He and midfield partner Abel Aguilar provide Colombia with a solid central base.
"The Rock," as Sanchez has been known since his youth, was particularly impressive in Colombia's 2-1 group-stage triumph over Ivory Coast, coming out on top in an engaging physical battle with Yaya Toure. Without a direct opponent, it was his adept positioning and awareness of danger that shone through in the last-16 victory over Uruguay.
Sanchez will again have an important role to play against hosts Brazil in Fortaleza on Friday.
Colombia are better equipped than Chile to deal with the pace that allowed Neymar to burn past Francisco Silva on a few occasions in the first half of Brazil's second-round victory. Right-back Juan Zuniga and right-sided centre-back Cristian Zapata are both relatively quick and should be able to keep up with the Brazilian No. 10.
Pekerman could, however, still be tempted to move Sanchez to the right of his midfield two in a bid to halt Neymar's progress when he picks the ball up and cuts in toward goal from deep.
Sanchez, then a relative unknown, was handed his first competitive international start in a 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw with Brazil in October 2007.
He is still a player who frequently flies under the radar, but a strong performance against the same opponents on Friday will surely result in greater recognition of his contribution to Colombia's success.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!