x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Champions League: Barcelona still waiting for Alexis Sanchez

Barcelona's third most expensive signing returns to Italy for the Uefa Champions League match, but he is struggling at Camp Nou, writes Andy Mitten.

Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona's Chilean winger, concedes he gets nervous during matches. Daniel Tejedor / AP Photo
Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona's Chilean winger, concedes he gets nervous during matches. Daniel Tejedor / AP Photo

Camp Nou willed him to shine in front of goal, but then cringed when he hesitated and missed.

Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona's 24-year-old Chilean winger who cost €35 million (Dh171.5m) from Udinese in 2011, acknowledges he is nervous during matches and it showed in the recent cup tie against Malaga, when he missed two opportunities a Barcelona forward should have converted.

"Alexis needs to think less and shoot more quickly," said the former Barca player and coach Charly Rexach. "The longer he thinks, the more doubts he has, the more time the goalkeeper has to make the goal smaller. When he hesitates, he loses the chance to score."

Although awarded the No 9 shirt, Sanchez was not bought as a goalscorer. He plays wide and as Rexach concedes: "There's a positive side to him, he doesn't score goals, but generates them."

The Chilean found partial redemption by netting his first league goal of the season against Getafe 10 days ago and was described as "great" by Barca's stand-in coach Jordi Roura. He wanted to offer a much-needed boost to the winger's confidence.

Sanchez returns to Italy tomorrow in a Uefa Champions League clash at the San Siro, where he scored in Udinese's 4-4 league draw against AC Milan in 2010/11. Then, he was the most coveted property in world football, with Chelsea and both Manchester clubs making concrete big-money bids, but he went for Barcelona, the club he had once told his father he would sign for.

A 500-strong crowd, many drawn from Barcelona's large expatriate South American community, waving Chile flags, pressed against the security fences by Camp Nou on the day he arrived in July 2011.

"I'm here to learn from the best," he said, flanked by two agents. He looked the business, stocky, yet lean, like a boxer. Here was a barrio boy made good with two diamond earrings the size of a baby's fist.

The plaudits flowed.

"Here, we search for a different type of footballer," said then assistant coach Tito Vilanova. "Other clubs sign players who are 1.9 metres [tall], strong and fast. Not us."

Lauded as Serie A's best player and the third most expensive signing in the Catalans' history behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa, Sanchez had a satisfactory first season, scoring 11 in 25 league starts, 14 in 38 overall. He was praised for his running and control and willingness to win the ball back.

Though beset by minor injuries, playing only half as many minutes of Lionel Messi showed that he was not considered an automatic starter. He was cut some slack because he was young, had moved to a new club in a new country. He gets less now, with suggestions that more home-grown players should be given a chance rather than the expensive import.

Things have got worse for Sanchez.

Chile, hoping to reach the World Cup finals, started well in the South American group but have lost their last three matches. Sanchez picked up a foot injury on international duty in November.

For his club, Sanchez has started just eight of Barca's league games – a third – and has been a substitute as many times. Although he started three of the Champions League games this season and also when Barca played in the San Siro for last season's scoreless quarter-final first leg, it would be a surprise if he began tonight in the front three with Messi and Pedro. Sanchez himself has said that he has been "5/10" and does not feel he deserves a place in the starting XI.

As Barca have faltered in recent weeks, the mood has turned a little against Sanchez. Some fans dispute he merits a starting place at such an important stage, others that he does not fit in with Barca's style.

As well as Milan tonight, Barca face Real Madrid in the league and a Copa del Rey semi-final in the next two weeks.

Sanchez has a contract until 2016. Unless he improves, he is unlikely to see it out.

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