Sanchez ready to show Red what they miss

Arsenal's Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez (L) challenges Anderlecht's midfielder Dennis Praet during the UEFA Champions League Group D football match between Arsenal and Anderlecht at the Emirates Stadium in north London on November 4, 2014.

When Liverpool lost Luis Suarez, the player who ignited their engine last season, they tried to sign Alexis Sanchez.

They are not like-for-like. No modern player has quite the same combustible mix of brilliance and bite as Sanchez. However, the Anfield crowd will get the first chance to assess Sanchez when he plays there, for Arsenal, this evening.

"Alexis Sanchez was identified for us as someone who would have been a key signing," said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers on Friday.

"He would have rolled on to what we had with Luis Suarez, so not to get him was disappointing.

"But once he was gone, that was it. We just had to focus on what we had."

Arsenal paid £30 million (S$61.8 million) for Sanchez. Liverpool spent £16 million on Mario Balotelli. An unkind critic, such as me, might suggest you get what you pay for.

When Rodgers had Suarez in his side, he was top of the tree this time last year.

Liverpool had pace and hunger, and though Suarez did not for once score in the 5-1 devastation of Arsenal at Anfield last February, his presence, his attribute of chasing down every ball was hugely important.

Suarez chose to leave for personal and professional reasons.

His wife's family live in Catalonia. He had the chance to take her there, and to play in the same attack as Lionel Messi and Neymar.

"At the end of the day," observed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, "every great player today has a choice of where to go. He (Alexis) chose us."

"He made his decision," commented Rodgers on the same player. "The best option for him."

The kernel of team building lies in those viewpoints. Managers and their reputations depend upon players, and that point was illuminated a few days ago when Thierry Henry finally announced that his playing days were over.

"He had a massive career," said Wenger, the man who guided Henry through the best of it.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for what he has done for the club and what a success he has been for us.

"He enjoyed it - now it's time for him to suffer as well."

Wenger meant to suffer the ups and downs, the dependency on players, great or otherwise if, as Henry says he intends to do, he goes into coaching and managing.

First, though, Henry will become the highest-paid pundit on Sky television, passing judgment from the studio on Wenger, Rodgers and the rest.

"He will see," added Wenger with a touch of French irony, "that it's not so easy to get everybody to score the goals that he scored!"

Which brings us straight back to Suarez and Sanchez.

Liverpool with Suarez scored 101 goals in the English Premier League last season. The Uruguayan scored 31 and, remember, he was banned for the opening five games of that campaign for another of his cannibal impersonations.

Alexis comes with nothing like that reputation. But he is South American, he is quick, and he runs until he or the opponents drop.

The Chilean is about to experience his first Christmas in England. It will be like none he has known before because the EPL packs in the fixtures for packed audiences right through the festive end to the year.

How the pendulum has swung. Wenger remembers the 5-1 thrashing, especially the four goals Liverpool struck in the first 20 minutes, as "a scar in your heart forever".

Yet he claims he loves Anfield. "There is a special atmosphere," he says. "I have a lot of respect for the crowd at Liverpool because they stand behind their team.

"I remember one day we were leading 5-1 at Liverpool, and they were chanting You'll Never Walk Alone.

"It's one of the few grounds in the world where you can see that. There's a special combination of knowledge of the game at Liverpool and support for their team."

The compliments serve another purpose. Wenger is stating that last season's heavy defeat was an aberration, and his team has an impressive record in front of the Kop.

Indeed, Liverpool have won just two of their last 14 Premier League games against Arsenal. Half were draws, though never, since 1999, a goal-less draw.

So Rodgers frets for his lost mojo, and Wenger smarts after the Gunners' defeat by Stoke City two weeks ago when he was subjected to verbal abuse from Arsenal fanatics.

They accuse him of lacking defensive nous. Even there, Sanchez is important because if every player cared as much as the Chilean does, if every forward also had a sense of defensive duty when the team is threatened, then this, still, is a salvageable season.

Liverpool, without Daniel Sturridge and Suarez, have become toothless. It is asking too much of Raheem Sterling to carry the attack on his own, and especially at Anfield the Reds have struggled for goals.

Their home record this season is Played 8, Won 3, Drawn 3, Lost 2, seven goals scored and six conceded.

Arsenal are still not firing on all cylinders, still badly miss Laurent Koscielny at the back, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Oezil in midfield, and Theo Walcott on the wing.

That is a lot of talent, and the critics blame Wenger's training methods for much of it. However, Olivier Giroud is back, and back in the goals, and Santi Cazorla has lately been the bundle of energy and fine technique who makes the game look fun.

Revenge is not the motive you might expect because injuries and departures mean that both Liverpool and Arsenal start with less than half the line-ups of this corresponding fixture last season.

The managers can influence only so much. The players have to implement the strategy, and Steven Gerrard, sums it up:

"We'll keep fighting until the end," he promises, "and if people are going to write us off, we can't control that.

"I tell the players - but if you're sitting in our dressing room and you don't know that the performance levels haven't been good enough of late, you're in the wrong place."


This article was first published on December 21, 2014.
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