Alexis Sanchez gave Arsenal a reminder of his qualities as he helped Manchester United to a 3-1 victory in the FA Cup fourth round, writes Nick Wright at the Emirates Stadium. There were just nine minutes on the clock when Sanchez jogged over to the side of the pitch and threw his gloves to the turf. On his first appearance at the Emirates Stadium since his acrimonious departure last year, and on only his second start for United since November, it was the first indication that the Chilean meant business. He certainly arrived in north London with a point to prove. Sanchez has endured a difficult time at United, scoring just four goals in his first 12 months, his poor form costing him a place in the team under Jose Mourinho, but it was fitting that he should rediscover his killer touch at a stadium where he once showed it so frequently. His beautifully-taken opener set United on their way to their eighth consecutive victory under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, securing their place in the fifth round of the FA Cup and adding to a growing sense of optimism that a season that started so dismally could yet end on a high. Sanchez, for his part, will hope it also serves as a turning point in his United career. Initially, though, and despite the gloves coming off, it was not immediately obvious that Sanchez’s evening was destined to end happily. He lined up on the left, pitting him against a potential weak link in Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but with the exception of one smart through ball to release Paul Pogba in Arsenal’s box, he offered little in the early stages. The home crowd enjoyed it, booing his every touch and cheering his slip-ups, but these fans know just how quickly he can spark into life and it wasn’t long before he silenced them. Romelu Lukaku‘s disguised pass was outstanding, but so too was Sanchez’s movement, checking his run before springing the offside trap to go through on goal.
From there, it was all about his trademark balance and composure. Sanchez jinked around Petr Cech, kept his footing, then made the difficult task of finding the back of the net from an acute angle look easy. He held his arms out, smiling but resisting the urge to celebrate as he was mobbed by his team-mates in front of the fans who used to cheer his name. United doubled their lead just two minutes later, and from then on Sanchez’s confidence grew. The rusty touches he showed in the early stages were replaced by decisiveness. He helped the visitors counter with real menace, sniffing out the gaps in Arsenal’s disorderly back-line and pulling red-shirted markers out of position. Arsenal did muster a response, halving the deficit through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shortly before half-time, but Sanchez continued to impress after the break. At one point, moments after dropping into midfield to launch another counter-attack, he sent a dazzling cross-field pass straight to the feet of Lukaku. It was a sign of his growing confidence and the statistics highlighted another. Despite being substituted with around 20 minutes still to play, Sanchez completed more dribbles than any other player on the pitch. His manager, who ruffled his hair as he left the pitch, agreed that his performance represented an important step forward. “For every player, the more confident you get, the more you want to get onto the pitch and train, work on yourself and improve yourself,” said Solskjaer. “He has been injured lately, so it was great to see him get 65, 70 minutes tonight. He can only improve, and I think he knows that himself.” The problem for Sanchez, of course, is the fierce competition he faces to win back his place in the team – as illustrated by the late introductions of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial at the Emirates Stadium. The pair’s pace made United even more dangerous on the break in the closing stages, with the latter finding himself in the right place at the right time to dispatch the third goal seven minutes from time. Sanchez faces a fight to usurp those younger team-mates, while the resurgent Lukaku also showed his ability to play out wide with two impressive assists, but for now the 30-year-old can simply enjoy a timely return to form. The chorus of boos which greeted his withdrawal showed he had proved his point. The gloves are off, and it seems Sanchez might just be on his way back. Photo Credit: Getty