Sanchez's amazing journey from Espanyol to A-League

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Sanchez now calls Australia's Western United home following Espanyol's relegation from LaLiga in 2019-2020, having spent 14 years in Spain and a brief stint with Neuchatel Xamax.

The versatile 33-year-old had not envisaged packing up and relocating his family 16,816km away to Melbourne, but the coronavirus pandemic changed his plans as Western United came calling.

"It is a league that wasn't in my plans and I hadn't thought about it because it is a very far country as well," Sanchez, who ranks fourth for most Espanyol appearances behind Raul Tamudo, Mauricio Pochettino and Javi Lopez, said.

"But when I had the chance, looking a little to everything and this league's level, because it is very well organised league, serious league and serious country also regarding coronavirus, I thought it was a great opportunity for me and the family as well."

Sanchez is among the growing number of Spaniards moving to Australia after former Espanyol team-mate Lopez also joined Adelaide United.

Former Athletic Bilbao pair Markel Susaeta and Benat have reunited at Macarthur FC for their inaugural season, while ex-Getafe attacker Diego Castro continues to star with Perth Glory.

"I didn't know much about the A-League," Sanchez said. "When I had the chance to come here I started looking at it and I also spoke with people that had played here: with Juande that was in Perth, with Markel Susaeta that was in Melbourne City last year, [former Western Sydney Wanderers striker] Oriol Riera and [former Melbourne Victory midfielder] Raul Baena.

"Footballers that have played here and everyone was telling me the same thing, that it is a spectacular experience, a great, great experience and life level, family level, and then because it is a league that, even though doesn't have the level of the Spanish league, is still a league physically strong and above all very well organised. Very serious league and I believe that at my age, with my career, I don't want surprises and I wanted to come to a league where things were properly done."

Sanchez brings a wealth of experience to Mark Rudan's Western United, who reached the A-League semi-finals in their first season in the competition.

The Catalonia-born midfielder – also adaptable in all defensive positions – emerged from Barcelona's youth system in 2005 and eventually made his debut for the first team in 2008.

Under the leadership of Pep Guardiola, Sanchez was part of the star-studded Barca squad that won the Champions League, LaLiga and Copa del Rey in 2008-09 – playing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Yaya Toure, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Samuel Eto'o.

"My relationship with him was very good," Sanchez said as he discussed working with Guardiola at Camp Nou. "I was with him in the second team, Barca B, and were promoted from the third division to the Second B Division, from the fourth league to the third league in Spain and it was truly a beautiful year, the first one of him as a coach.

"He then moved to the first team and he promoted Sergio Busquets and me to the first team as well, even though we still belonged to the youth team, but to be within the first team dynamic. That year was truly incredible, the season 2008-09 when we won Liga, Copa and Champions League, a fantasy year. Afterwards I have kept relation with him when I have played against him and we have talked quite a lot.

"Now I haven't talked to him for a long time, but he is very innovative in everything he does. He is a genius, there isn't many like him. I was lucky enough to share a locker room with Guardiola."

Sanchez made seven LaLiga appearances in 2008-09, and 12 across all competitions, before being loaned out to Xerex and Getafe in 2009-10 and 2010-11. A six-month stint in Switzerland followed, but after 16 games the Barcelona native returned home.

However, this time, Sanchez – among a select few to play for both clubs – crossed the divide to link up with neighbours Espanyol in 2012.

"It's different to play for Barcelona than to play for Espanyol. The rivalry of the derbies. I think it is lived differently from Barcelona than from Espanyol," Sanchez said. "From the Barcelona perspective, rivalry exists, but nothing compares from the Espanyol perspective towards Barca.

"At Espanyol, for you it's like a final or a title to be able to win against Barcelona. Nowadays the economic differences are huge, so it is very difficult to win a match against Barcelona playing for Espanyol. I was there like nine years and was lucky to win one derby, in the Copa del Rey, in the first leg. When that happens it's when you realise how difficult it is. You also notice how they want to win too even though they see the rivalry differently."

Sanchez joined forces with Pochettino as the Argentine coach made a name for himself at Espanyol before moving on to Southampton and Tottenham.

"He is a great coach," Sanchez, who backed the former Spurs boss to make the move to Real Madrid, added. "I was with him a short time. I arrived at Espanyol when he was there and it can be said that he bought me for the club. You could already see that he had what it takes to be a great coach with his ideas, how he worked with the team, he was very demanding.

"I think it was clear he would reach the top. I had a very good relationship with him. I was like six or eight months with him and it was a great coach in my career."

While Pochettino eventually departed for Premier League side Southampton less than a year later, Sanchez continued to help fly the flag for Espanyol.

Sanchez went to battle in the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Barca – renewing acquaintances with ex-Blaugrana team-mates Messi and Pique in heated showdowns – the rivalry coming to a head in a fiercely contested 1-1 draw at RCDE Stadium in February 2018.

Espanyol's Sanchez went head-to-head with six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi in wet conditions, and he added: "Messi is a very special player, different than the rest. I think he particularly likes to play against Espanyol.

"It is true that we played a very hot derby that ended up in a tie with Pique's goal around minute 80. It was raining, a hard match, beautiful, sentimental. Messi is the best player of the world, above the rest. To win against him, to steal the ball off him or make things difficult for him is a personal triumph. Because as I said, he is very above from the rest."

Fast forward to December 2020 and Sanchez is determined to taste success with Western United after experiencing Espanyol's painful relegation to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993.

"I want to win, be on the top and make the team to be as high as possible. The A-League is economically very equal between teams, a bit similar to MLS where budget is close," said Sanchez, who had a passing accuracy of 80.5 per cent in 25 LaLiga appearances last season.

"If you make a good team, a good year and if you have confidence, you can fight for anything. Hopefully we will be lucky enough to come back to the play-offs and this time be able to be in semi-finals or the final and can be champions."

Sanchez, who registered 116 recoveries and 27 interceptions, while he won possession on 116 occasions in 2019-20, added: "I have signed for two years but my plan is to stay more and hopefully that will be possible. After my experience in Spain having played quite a lot of matches, a long career, I was looking for a change. It will be also positive for us to learn the language. My English is basic at the moment.

"After 13 or 14 years playing in LaLiga it was a bit exhausting."