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21st Apr 2018

Alexis Sanchez, United’s Wembley Warrior, delivers emphatic response to doubters with semi-final heroics

What a performance

Matthew Gault

What a performance

There can be no denying that Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United has not panned out quite how the club would have intended but, if Saturday was a glimpse into what’s to come, there is hope for the forward yet.

Sanchez endured one of his worst displays in a United shirt last week during the miserable defeat to West Brom. The Chilean was then dropped to the bench for the win over Bournemouth before being reinstated – somewhat contentiously – for the FA Cup semi-final victory over Tottenham.

Disgruntled sections of the United fanbase have voiced frustration over the perceived negative impact Sanchez’s arrival has had on two of the club’s brightest stars, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.

However, while Sanchez has failed to produce the same level of consistency that made him such a devastating weapon for Arsenal, he has offered emphatic reminders of why the club signed him in the first place.

After two assists in the comeback win over Manchester City, this was another thrilling demonstration of Sanchez’s big-game mentality, his resilience and his sheer dog-of-war spirit.

Like in the win over City, United started poorly. After just ten minutes, Spurs were ahead. Christian Eriksen surged into the space left by an out-of-position Ashley Young and punished him, swinging a beautiful cross into Dele Alli who fired beyond David De Gea.

Suddenly, Spurs had their tails up and there were already worrying parallels to when Mauricio Pochettino’s side outplayed United at Wembley in January.

However, unlike that spineless league defeat, United stood up and refused to wilt under the intensity of Spurs’ pressing. Jose Mourinho cut an incensed figure in his technical area and, after berating Ander Herrera, the manager coaxed the desired response out of his players.

Pogba, in search of redemption, outmuscled the usually unflappable Mousa Dembele and lifted his head to find Sanchez in the Spurs penalty area. With one educated swish of his right boot, the Frenchman delivered the perfect cross, dropping the ball between Jan Vertonghen and Ben Davies and onto Sanchez’s head. The Chilean, slightly falling backward, still had plenty to do but provided a finishing touch worthy of the delivery, placing his header into the far corner to draw United level.

With parity restored, United found a second wind in the second half as Spurs struggled to find inspiration. Chris Smalling did remarkably to keep Harry Kane on the periphery, Herrera didn’t let Alli out of his sight while Pogba played with the kind of creativity and poise that comically eluded him in the first-half when he was robbed of possession before being nutmegged by Kieran Trippier.

But it’s Sanchez who will take the plaudits – and not without merit. At one point, he looked around and must have realised it was Wembley, it was a cup semi-final; it was the perfect opportunity to offer the proverbial wagging finger to the sceptics.

And he became United’s Wembley Warrior, all hard running and gutsy tackles, almost as if someone was playing a timeloop video of Sanchez’s greatest hits from his Arsenal days.

But no, this was different, this was him laying down a marker, this was him thanking Mourinho for his continued faith and this was him effectively telling Martial and Rashford, “if you want your place in the line-up, you’re going to have to play like this.”

Sanchez’s clinical edge helped him score the first but his alertness helped create the second. Latching on to a loose ball, he held off Trippier before picking out Romelu Lukaku on the edge of the box. The Belgian’s touch deserted him but Ander Herrera was there to fire home the winner.

Sanchez was substituted off in the 96th-minute and he looked understandably shattered. He ran himself into the ground and inspired another turnaround. At the end, it was no surprise to see him named Man of the Match.

It’s been far from plain sailing for Sanchez at United but sometimes a player just needs that one lion-hearted performance to give their confidence a much-needed jolt. Now, with another important Wembley date to come next month, United fans will be hoping Sanchez’s standout display against Spurs was just the prelude to what he will deliver in the final.