In his homeland he is known as "El Niño Maravilla" and right now, despite being only 22, Udinese's "Boy Wonder" Alexis Sánchez seemingly has the freedom to choose between some of Europe's biggest clubs as next destination. With teams such as Barcelona, Inter Milan and Manchester City reportedly interested, a move away seems almost a foregone conclusion. Despite the constant denials from the Italian club, it is highly unlikely he will be reporting to its summer training camp as it prepares for its hard-earned Champions League playoff round.It would seem that Sanchez's own desire to improve is the driving force behind the speculation. "Everything is about Udinese, what they want and the offers that arrive," said Sanchez to reporters. "I'm the last person to ask because I'm happy here in Udine. But I have a fire burning inside me, I'm desperate to prove I'm a top player."
Both he and his representatives recognize his stock may never be more highly sought than it currently is. He is the man of the moment thanks to a stellar season at the heart of one of this year's most surprising and entertaining sides.
However it hasn't always been this way for Sanchez. It is easy to forget, given the hyperbole that engulfs him, that his career has not been the unmitigated success it currently appears. Many first became aware of him during the 2007 U-20 World Cup where he was outstanding. Even then Udinese's scouting network had stolen a march however, signing him in July 2006 from Cobreloa for a mere €2 million fee ($2.9M). Particular credit -- as ever with the Fruili club -- lies with the owner's son Gino Pozzo, who takes on much of the groundwork done in recruiting talented young players from across the globe.
Sanchez would spend a further two seasons on loan in South America after being signed by the Zebrette. This allowed him to develop more naturally and prevent his natural flair becoming stymied by moving to Italy at too young an age. He would first be sent to Chile's biggest club Colo-Colo and helped it to second place in the 2006 Copa Sudamericana. Sánchez would then be moved along to Argentine side River Plate, winning the Clausura Championship before finally being called to Udinese in the summer of 2008.
His first two seasons in Serie A would pass relatively quietly, his 40 appearances yielding eight goals and five assists. He did play a vital role in the sides Coppa Italia quarterfinal over Milan in January last year, constantly causing problems for the Rossoneri defense and setting up the winning goal for Gökhan Inler.
Then came his impressive performances at last summer's World Cup where he helped Chile to the round of 16, the team having captured the imagination of many thanks to Marcelo Bielsa's tactics and their seemingly attacking abandonment on the field. Despite losing to Brazil 3-0, Sánchez constantly probed and tested the Seleção defense.
But even this term -- by far his most productive and eye-catching to date -- did not get off to the best of starts.
As Udinese's third game of the season -- a four-goal home loss to Juventus -- petered out to (it was the third of four straight losses), Sanchez was taken off as Francesco Guidolin searched for a solution. It would be another month before the diminutive number seven would be restored to the starting lineup, with the coach moving him into an unfamiliar role slightly behind striker Antonio Di Natale, as Guidolin explained to
"We took a gamble on Sánchez, he had always played wide, but I put forward the idea of playing him behind the striker. From a central position he can be even more decisive. Playing there he is more unpredictable, harder to keep tabs on."
Once there, it took Sanchez a while to become accustomed to his new position and, as Serie A took its customary Winter Break at the end of December, he had scored just two goals. Yet once the league started up again, it all fell into place as he netted 10 goals in the next 12 games, a streak which would see him consistently stand out in games.
A breathtaking display in the 4-4 draw with Milan, a 3-1 win over Inter, a goal and an assist against Sampdoria and the winner in a 2-1 triumph away to Juventus were only the start as the player relished the freedom of his new role.
Those results were all part of a 13-game unbeaten run that lasted three months and made all the difference in Udinese's quest to ultimately secure a Champions League berth. Napoli coach Edy Reja summed up the feelings of most Serie A defenses when he said "How do we stop Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale? We could try shooting them" after being asked by SkyItalia how he planned to defend against them.
Indeed it is not difficult to argue that, in a team where Di Natale scored just one goal fewer than in 2009-10, it has been largely down to the increased influence of Sánchez -- and a much improved defense -- that the side has won nine more games and gained 22 points compared to the previous season.
While numerous clubs are interested in Sanchez, it's clear it's is the style of play (rather than formation) employed by Guidolin this season that has brought the best from him -- he would be best advised to find a similar setup in order to continue what has been remarkable progress.
Udinese often plays at a frenetic pace, its ultra-quick game involving lots of direct (but not long) quick balls to its forward players while maintaining both its tactical shape and playing controlled football unless on the break. As with most wingers when moved infield, Sánchez tends to drift across the front line, making him extremely difficult for opponents to mark.
If that makes him sound like a typical Barcelona player, then it seems the Catalan club have had the same idea. The two clubs are believed to be talking over a possible deal, although the capture of Giuseppe Rossi from Villarreal may still be a priority and it remains to be seen if Barcelona would want to bring in both players.
Should he manage to successfully make the transition, his talents are certainly in-keeping with the traditions of the Blaugrana. Their constant rotating between spaces and positions suits Sanchez's style perfectly. His defensive work would need much improvement for him to adapt to the often relentless pressing demanded by Pep Guardiola.
Were Barca to pull out of the race however, the philosophy of new Juventus coach Antonio Conte is also a good match. Serie A's more famous Bianconeri are desperate for a top player, a great acquisition that can ignite excitement among the fans and lead them to fill the new stadium, reinforcing the already solid group in place.
The right signing could change them from being also-rans into the fearsome side of old and make them serious contenders once more. A lack of European competition may enable him to further hone his skills away from the biggest stage for another year. Former Udinese striker Abel Balbo has no doubts he is ready, telling
"Whoever takes Alexis Sanchez will have the deal of the transfer window ... the Chilean has grown so much over the last year in Udine and I feel he's ready to make a big splash in world football."
With so much interest and so many plaudits being bestowed upon him it is easy to forget both his age and relative inexperience. He has yet to play 100 league games since leaving South America and has scored less goals in his career than Cristiano Ronaldo has to his name this season alone. He has also logged just nine Europa League appearances (and no goals) since arriving in Italy.
Yet one of these traditional giants, with their strong squads and deep pockets, will welcome him in the coming weeks. What remains to be seen is, once there, whether he can continue to improve and flourish among the best or fade to obscurity under the weight of one of Europe's heaviest shirts. For Alexis Sánchez it is time to show and prove.