Just over two months ago, Arsene Wenger vowed to give Alexis Sanchez a break. The question was when.
A lengthening injury list meant the Arsenal manager’s options were limited. Then the decision was taken out of his hands. Sanchez’s hamstring injury against Norwich, coming on the same afternoon Santi Cazorla suffered a long-term injury and Arsenal dropped two valuable points in their final game of a miserable November, felt seismic.
The Chilean is an explosive player with a tireless workrate that inspires those around him. His brilliance in the first half of last season kept Arsenal in the hunt for a Champions League spot before his team-mates found form and consistency after Christmas.
Sanchez, though, remained the main man. It was his goals that got Arsenal over the line in a nervy, laboured FA Cup semi-final against Reading before he produced one of the great cup final moments when his ferocious, dipping strike shattered Aston Villa’s hopes at Wembley.
After a sluggish start to this season, Sanchez roared back to form when netting a hat-trick in the 5-2 victory at Leicester before scoring twice in the 3-0 win at Manchester United.
Here was a man for the big occasion so the initial deflation surrounding Arsenal’s title aspirations after his injury was predictable. What was less predictable was how well the Gunners would cope without a player who had been their very heartbeat for the previous 17 months.
Arsenal, with Joel Campbell proving a surprisingly able – if less explosive - replacement for their injured talisman, won seven of the 10 games Sanchez missed with the 4-0 drubbing at Southampton their only defeat in that time.
They go into this weekend as Premier League leaders, albeit merely on goal difference from Leicester. They are, in short, where they want to be.
However, the likely return of Sanchez for today’s visit of Chelsea still represents a massive boost.
Not least because, for the first time since his arrival at the Emirates from Barcelona, Sanchez has had a proper break. It may have been an unwanted one but it was certainly needed.
He arrived in London having starred in the 2014 World Cup and played 52 games for Arsenal in his first season at the club. Last summer brought no respite as Sanchez played all six games as Chile claimed Copa America glory.
He was rushed back in club action little more than a month later and had already racked up 24 appearances this season before his body finally betrayed him.
Consequentially, it’s arguable, probable even, that Arsenal have not yet seen a fresh and rested Alexis Sanchez. That’s a tantalising prospect for the Gunners.
If that is the case his lay-off might prove to have been a blessing in disguise . However, it’s not all about Sanchez. Midfield enforcer Francis Coquelin is back in training, Tomas Rosicky stepped up his return with an appearance with the U21 side yesterday while next month could see the likes of Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, and possibly Cazorla return. Having that sextet back would greatly enhance Wenger’s options and their freshness and desire to make up for lost time might just give Arsenal the impetus to get over the title line for the first time since the 2003/04 season.
And if that is to happen, Sanchez will have a key part to play.
Today would be the perfect time to start making up for lost time.
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