Alexis Sanchez has already had to cope with one big recent disappointment after his proposed £60m move from Arsenal to Manchester City collapsed on deadline day. Now he has to cope with another, after Chile failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, what would have been his last World Cup at the peak of his powers.
Sanchez landed back in England on Thursday afternoon, meaning he can only have at most one training session before Arsenal play at Vicarage Road on Saturday evening. Many players would be so crestfallen by these twin set-backs – no move, no World Cup – that they would be sulking for months, devoid of motivation.
But Sanchez is a fighter and even though Wenger admitted he may have to sell his best player in January, he still eventually expects him to knuckle down and produce his best for as long as he still plays for Arsenal. It is not in Sanchez’s nature to mope and even if he will now spend next June and July a long way from Russia – possibly in transfer negotiations – Wenger is still backing him to keep going.
Who’s already qualified for the 2018 World Cup?
“You have always to set targets when you’re a football player,” Wenger said. “When one is gone, you focus on something else.”
There is no doubt that Sanchez was upset with what happened over the international break as Chile lost their last game 3-0 to Brazil while Peru fought back against Colombia – thanks to a David Ospina error – meaning that they took the play-off spot against New Zealand. Chile, winners of the last two Copa Americas, will not be in Russia next summer.
Wenger is anxious that the toll of the break – mental and physical – may hold his star player back from playing his best in the coming weeks.
“I watched the game yesterday,” said Wenger with a pronounced sigh. “What a physical game it was, with that number of fouls. Sanchez played against Dani Alves, that was a real battle, believe me. It’s worse to watch. He got some special treatment. It was a very physical game and mentally I will have to assess the situation when he comes back.”
The real damage is the fact that Sanchez had been looking forward to this World Cup for years, and now it has been taken away from him. He has a brilliant record at international level, part of the Chile team that stunned Spain at the 2014 World Cup and that famously beat Argentina on penalties in the finals of the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas. The 2018 World Cup should have been the culmination of years of progress for this team and for Sanchez, their best player. Now it will be a bitterly empty summer.
“Alexis is as well in a very difficult mind,” Wenger said. The 2022 Qatar World Cup will likely be a bridge too far for a player who is so much about physical intensity and speed. “Chile just won the Copa America twice, and now they don’t even go to the World Cup. Sanchez is 29 at the end of this year, so the next one he will be 33. He expected to go. Certainly a big disappointment for him.”
There was even a sense of disappointment in Wenger’s voice about the sadness Sanchez must be feeling. “You want your players to be in a positive mind, and to have to positive experiences,” he said. “To go to the World Cup is the target of every single player who plays football.”
The question, then, is how quickly Sanchez can shake this off. Wenger hopes it will be quick. “I have no doubt that he wants to perform,” Wenger said. “Sanchez never goes on the football pitch to lose a football game, never. Sanchez is a winner type.”
Ultimately being an elite sportsman means handling the ups and downs of competition, club and international, and maintaining motivation. Aaron Ramsey must cope with his own disappointment after Wales lost to the Republic of Ireland, knocking them out of the qualifying process.
“To play at the top level it is part of dealing with that kind of disappointment,” Wenger said. “If you want to make a big career it’s a bit of a roller-coaster, because you are sometimes on a high then three days later you’re on a low. It’s part of our job. Some deal better than others with it. For Wales it was a bit tough because they were nearly there too.”
Sanchez will feel the pain worse than most because he was the man expected to deliver single-handedly when his team needed. Wenger compared his profile to Zinedine Zidane in France, David Beckham in England and Lionel Messi in Argentina in that regard. Ultimately Messi saved his country this week, but Sanchez could not save his.
“You have in every generation a player who carries the pressure of expectation of a nation,” Wenger said. “A guy who has to carry the pressure and absorb it and protect a little bit the rest of the team. It’s someone normally who likes it a little bit. They like to be on the front line. Remember in 1998 when Beckham was sent off against Argentina, he was slaughtered here, treated like a guy who killed somebody. They have to take both the positives and the negatives as well.”