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It is difficult to recall, in recent years at least, a top-level career which has gone off the rails quite so spectacularly as that of Alexis Sanchez.
In January 2018, the forward was the subject of a bitter tug-of-war between the two Manchester clubs for his services, both City and United desperate to land a player who had lit up the Premier League at Arsenal. United won out, but it proved to be a hollow victory, as Alexis immediately entered a deep and seemingly irreversible slump at Old Trafford.
The talent is still there. On one of the few occasions Sanchez has been afforded regular first-team football, at the 2019 Copa America, he was one of the players of the tournament, as he guided Chile to the semi-finals in their ultimately unsuccessful bid for a third straight international title.
That boost, as well as the promise of a new start on loan with Inter under long-time Antonio Conte, seemed to suggest that 2019-20 would bring better fortunes after 18 hellish months at United.
Sadly for Alexis, that loan switch has also failed to pan out. The striker has made a paltry two Serie A starts to date – the same number of games which he has started at international level – due a combination of injury issues and the formidable partnership formed by Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez.
When Alexis has appeared, he has looked sluggish, off the pace and out of shape, contributing just a single goal to Inter's efforts in what looks set to be a forgettable spell back in Italy. His repeated failures are a mystery even to those who know the former Barca, Arsenal and Udinese ace best.
"Sometimes, in football, there is no explanation for every single thing that happens," ex-United colleague Ander Herrera toldThe Athletic. "Alexis is one of them. He came from Arsenal. He used to win games by himself for Arsenal.
“It shows football sometimes has no explanation. How can a player, who one month before, two months before, is the best player by far in a big team like Arsenal… then he comes to United and he doesn’t perform? I have no explanation."
At the age of 31, Alexis should be at his prime, but between his United woes, Inter frustrations and coronavirus, he has seen two of what should have been his best years as a pro swirl down the drain.
For now, he still has his bit-part role at San Siro, with Inter practically out of the Scudetto race but still active in the Coppa Italia – Sanchez is likely to start once more from the bench in Saturday's semi-final against Napoli – and Europa League and keen to retain his services at least until his loan reaches its initial expiration date of June 30.
“We will count on Alexis Sanchez a lot for the end of this season,” Inter sporting director Piero Ausilio told Sky Sport of the Chilean's chances of staying in Milan beyond this prolonged 2019-20 campaign. “It will be a definitive test for him. Then, we will see.”
United, too, will have to decide whether they can sustain a deal that reportedly sees Inter pay roughly a quarter of Alexis' mammoth £400,000 ($500,000) a week salary – the price of getting one over on City – or else look for another suitor in a market which promises precious few buyers for a 30-plus forward with an inflated wage packet and two years of rotten form following him.
Covid-19 must have come as a double frustration for Sanchez. The pandemic accounted for not just the 2020 Copa America– a shop window for the forward if ever there was one– but also Chile's opening two World Cup qualifiers, against Uruguay and Colombia.
Whatever else can be said about Alexis, he rarely disappoints when wearing the red shirt of his birthplace, and those games would have been invaluable not just to demonstrate that his talents have not withered but also to gain form and confidence to carry over to the club game.
As it stands, he must settle for an identical role to that he played prior to lockdown: long spells on the bench watching Lukaku and Lautaro sparkle and the odd cameo to see out the clock or inject extra attacking threat late on.
However, at this point, Alexis must take every opportunity he gets to prove that this long slump can be broken; if not, his career among football's elite may well have come to a close.