x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sanchez finding his niche with Barcelona after months of frustration

Chilean striker is finally at home at Camp Nou after a lengthy struggle

Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring the winning goal in Barcelona's 2-1 defeat of Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring the winning goal in Barcelona's 2-1 defeat of Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo

It was February 2013 and Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez cut a forlorn figure. The 24-year-old Chilean winger, who cost €35 million (Dh177m) from Udinese in 2011, said he was nervous during matches, and it showed in a cup tie against Malaga, when he missed two opportunities a Barcelona forward should have converted.

Former Barca player and coach Charly Rexach said: “Alexis needs to think less and shoot more quickly. 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.”

Privately, many Barca fans thought Sanchez was not good enough to play for their team. They knew he had talent, but he failed to show it.

He was a confidence player with no confidence, the man with a shot like a bullet but with a gun he was reluctant to fire.

Sanchez’s nadir coincided with Barca’s poorest run of form last season. The Catalans cannot afford to carry players, but they were carrying the Chilean.

That was then. This season, Sanchez has been one of Barca’s best players. His opening goal in their 3-0 victory at Celta Vigo on Tuesday was his sixth in eighth games and marked his 100th appearance for the Catalans. He has benefited from Gerardo Martino rotating teams. Barca’s No 9 now boasts a scoring rate – only Lionel Messi has scored more – to match his assist rate. He looks fitter, confident and is more productive as a result.

His goal in Saturday’s clasico was Barca’s best of the season, a wondrous chip from the edge of the area that lit up a game in which neither Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo netted.

That Sanchez had entered the pitch as a substitute for Cesc Fabregas showed he is not in Martino’s best XI for the biggest matches, but while Barca’s play has lost some of the beauty which mesmerised the world under Pep Guardiola, Sanchez is looking the explosive player which saw both Manchester clubs and Barca fight for his signature two years ago.

Then, he said that he was “here to learn to be the best”. Finally, those lessons have taken root and Barcelona’s patience is being rewarded.

sports@thenational.ae