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Welcomed on his arrival as a hero by Marseille fans, and nearly injuring himself in greeting them, Alexis Sánchez could not have found a more fervent atmosphere on this side of the Atlantic to revive his career.
Moving on a free transfer, the tearaway striker was Marseille’s star signing of a turbulent summer that had kicked off with his former Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli’s dramatic resignation. Now admittedly reaching the sunset of his career, Sánchez has nevertheless not lost any of the drive and work ethic that made him a constant nuisance for opposing defenders, both with and without the ball.
Despite various number nines at his disposal, Igor Tudor has opted for the Chilean to front his OM team. With seven goals in seventeen appearances, the former Arsenal man is re-paying that faith, even if he has at times looked rather distant from the centre of the action. In any case, it’s a welcome change from his slow slide down the pecking order at Inter.
On paper, his return to Italy had been a minor success, especially when contrasted with the depths of his spell at Manchester United. Although he was mostly resigned to a bit-part role off the bench, the former Udinese breakout star added a Serie A title to his trophy cabinet and returned a respectable record of 20 goals in just over a century of appearances. However, it became apparent early on in his time there that Lautaro Martínez had assumed the mantle of the workhorse forward, and the Argentine, eight years his junior, was inevitably preferred as the regular starter both by Antonio Conte and Simone Inzaghi. Along with a Coppa Italia win, arguably his most memorable moment for the Lombardy team would be the winner in the Super Cup final against Juventus.
His departure from the Nerazzurri arrived after a contract termination was mutually agreed in August. What once looked to be a far-fetched move to the other side of the Alps – not least because of his wages – then became a reality, to the delight of the fervent Marseille fans waiting at the airport. For all of Sampaoli’s complaints over a lack of movement in the market, Pablo Longoria had finally made a major addition that befitted Marseille’s return to the Champions League.
After making his debut in the trip to Brest, within four days of signing, Sánchez announced himself with a double in a resounding win in Nice on matchday four. Most of his goals have been fairly efficient exercises in positioning rather than shows of individual brilliance, barring a direct free-kick in the win over Monaco just before the World Cup. With Arkadiusz Milik loaned out to Juventus, Luis Suárez’s form taking nosediving after August, and Bamba Dieng still reeling from his failed move down the Côte d’Azur, it was down to the Chilean to step up.
OM’s early-season title charge was somewhat derailed by their October form, even if they did finish on a high with wins against Lyon and Monaco. The Chilean’s continental experience, meanwhile, was not enough to prevent a dramatic dénouement with Sánchez’s former North London rivals, Tottenham, which saw OM crash out of European competition altogether. Having been the face of Marseille’s pre-Champions League recruitment campaign Sánchez and his teammates have been left empty handed for the spring, after a group stage campaign that saw him strike twice – his best return in the competition since his Arsenal days.
One of his goals, both came against Sporting Lisbon, would encapsulate what the forward has brought to Marseille, as he closed down the Portuguese side’s goalkeeper to force a clearance, which he blocked to score. Although the visitors had gone one up, Sánchez’s goal set the wheels in motion for a comeback – helped massively by Antonio Adán’s horror show which lasted just 20 minutes before he was sent off. Marseille’s matches against the Primeira Liga side, though, would ultimately be their only wins in the competition.
It hasn’t been plain sailing with his national team either with the double Copa América winner only winning once with his country across the entirety of the calendar year. A 3-2 victory over Bolivia, in which Sánchez scored twice, was Chile’s only three points in a catastrophic final straight of their World Cup qualifying campaign. The only other time the 33-year-old would find himself on the scoresheet for La Roja was in a draw against Qatar, as part of the host country’s preparations for the tournament. Now the team’s joint-top appearance-maker on 152 caps – as well as being their top goalscorer, with 47 – the forward will now be hoping the stability he’s found at club level can influence his international form.
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With Chile absent from the World Cup, though, Sánchez will be returning to the south of France well-rested and ready to attack the second half of the season. As the season progresses, the forward’s future will inevitably become a topic of concern, having signed an initial one-year deal with an optional extension at OM. Given that reception, and the way he’s responded in kind, it’s hard to see the Chilean packing his bags at the end of the season, especially if Marseille can sustain a challenge at the top. Tudor’s men have only one target to play for now – barring a possible Coupe de France run – whittling down PSG’s 11-point lead at the top. A tall order, but they’ll have no better figure to lead their troops forward than the richly-decorated Sánchez. With a possible return to Chile in view, it would be a fitting end to his time in Europe.
Raphaël Jucobin | GFFN