The Camp Nou was generous with their applause for Alexis Sanchez when he came off Manchester United's bench with 10 minutes left on Tuesday night. It was some noise from 92,000 home fans -- and maybe some in the away end too. Not everyone has fully given up on Sanchez at United, of course, but they know a comeback to greatness is as likely as a United one was the other night. Still, Sanchez looked lively in that short spell.
It's easier to be magnanimous as the Catalans were to their former player when your side are leading 4-0 on aggregate in their Champions League quarterfinal, second leg, but the sentiments towards Sanchez were genuine. He did well in his three years at Barca, although not quite well enough for fans to want him to stay before he was sold and the money used to pay for Neymar.
Barca won the Champions League months before Sanchez arrived and next won it the season after he left, when he scored 21 times in 54 games. He's scored just five times in 42 games for United. He's a huge flop, a massive disappointment and has given United a big headache. Celebrated and welcomed when he signed to a huge fanfare and no little desperation in January 2018, he looks finished not only as the top-level player that he was, but even one good enough to get into England's sixth-best team at the time. He's started eight league games this season; David de Gea has started 33.
Sanchez should be one of United's top three scorers; instead he boasts a solitary league goal. It's abysmal. He's also notched just three assists, three little glimpses of what might be.
Injuries have hit Sanchez this season, but they are no real excuse. He might yet come good and become the player he was, but he turned 30 back in December; he's not a 22-year-old whose game can be changed. He's also at a club in transition rather than, say, being asked to join the best team in world and pass the ball to Lionel Messi. (Transition is a diplomatic word. "Clearing up the mess left by the previous manager" is the verdict of those who like to sit in judgment.)
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been diplomatic and positive with Sanchez but has little choice to be anything else. He could freeze him out, but for all he knows he still has a decent footballer who could help him, even though he's one of the few yet to experience an uplift in form after the Norwegian arrived.
The crux of the problem is not Sanchez's dire form, but his massively lucrative contract that could keep him at Old Trafford until 2022. It's so big that the longer he stays and underwhelms, the more it costs the club because his inflated wages have become the benchmark for other players' negotiations.
Sanchez wanted the money when he left Arsenal, but he didn't want it to be like this. He wanted to continue being the successful footballer that he's usually been. He trains well and nobody can doubt that he tries in games, but sources suggest he's still not particularly close to his teammates. He also has little interest in doing any media to put forward his own perspective. The fans would quite like to hear what he thinks, but there's nothing. He's as cold as Angel di Maria was in Manchester, meaning his silence might be diplomatic.
Sanchez adds little to the dressing room ambience too. When the cold air from an open fridge door was drifting in his direction at the training ground earlier this season, he asked for the door to be changed so that it opened away from him. This was done without question.
How do United get out of this mess? Nobody with a right mind is going to match his wages.
"Getting Sanchez off the books will help United rebalance the wage structure," a leading agent told ESPN. "It'll cost United to get rid of him, but it's costing them to keep him, too. People say that a Chinese club might take him, but the rules have been tweaked in China. Transfer fees over a certain level mean the club must invest the same amount into developing their own youth system, meaning a transfer costs twice as much."
United included Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the deal with Arsenal but didn't pay a transfer fee for Sanchez.
"They could get very lucky with someone like PSG not doing their homework," the agent said. "But other than that it will mean paying a percentage -- and likely a high percentage -- of his wages if he goes on loan somewhere."
Man United have experience in his area. Nani's wages were heavily subsidised when he was let go during Louis van Gaal's disastrous talent purge, but he earned nothing like Sanchez.
United have money to spend this summer, but the wage bill is already too much for an underperforming team who have been outclassed by Wolves three times this season. This is the area crying out for a new sporting director to sort it out, but United have said "no thanks" to some of the very best sporting directors in football, indicating that the club know what they are going to do with regards to that appointment.
Solskjaer knows he has a significant rebuilding job alongside that appointee. He can hope that Sanchez finishes this season well and pick expectations up off the floor. He could start by doing as well this Sunday at Everton as he did on his last visit to Goodison when he scored and set a goal up in a 5-2 win for Arsenal.
Play like that and he might have a future at Old Trafford. But does Sanchez even believe that himself?