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Sanchez and Navas: potent and impotent wingers key to FA Cup semi

For the second time in three weeks, they may be in direct competition when Arsenal meet Manchester City at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal on Sunday. Alexis Sanchez and Jesus Navas may be the most and least productive wingers in the Premier League. They might even be teammates next season, should the Chile international join City and Navas complete his unlikely renaissance by securing a new contract.

The numbers highlight the differences between the two FA Cup semifinalists. Sanchez has 19 goals and nine assists in the Premier League. Navas' respective tallies are zero and zero. It may be an indirect, unfair comparison, given the Arsenal man has spent much of the season leading the line and the City player has been a substitute at times and a right-back recently, but it highlights a gulf in potency.

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Navas has gone 98 league games without a goal; by the time of next Thursday's Manchester derby, his drought will have stretched back 1195 days. Sanchez has 56 league goals in that time, City 258 since Navas struck against Cardiff in January 2014 and, while he has been more of a fringe figure this season, it is hard to think of a supposedly attacking player who has featured reasonably regularly for any club and has contributed none of their last 258 goals.

Hence, perhaps, Pep Guardiola's decision to reinvent him. It highlights the City manager's experimental streak and his boldness, pitching Navas in against two of the league's most dangerous wingers in the space of a few days. "We cannot forget he played against [Eden] Hazard, he played against Alexis and he was brilliant," he said recently.

Now Navas has joined the band of wingers who have become wing-backs or full-backs, providing company for Antonio Valencia, James Milner, Victor Moses and, this week, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Meanwhile, Sanchez, like Roberto Firmino, is at the vanguard of the advance of the winger-strikers, fast forwards who threaten to render target men anachronisms.

He can also be one of another breed, the wingers who can operate as inside forwards in the vogueish 3-4-2-1 system that Arsene Wenger belatedly adopted at Middlesbrough on Monday. Guardiola, who signed Sanchez for Barcelona in 2011, acknowledged in December it is a role he can play. "In Barcelona maybe I didn't help him too much as I like the wingers wide, and he can do that but he plays more between the lines closer to the goal," he said.

Jesus Navas may not score but he has done well at right-back and will have the job of trying to stop Sanchez on Sunday.

There were times earlier in the season when Guardiola's training ground work became apparent as Navas followed instructions to materialise in pockets of space between full-back and central defender, centre midfielder and winger, where Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva would excel, only to seem confused what to do there.   

His policy of running quickly in straight lines, outside the left-back, and crossing made Navas an anomaly among a generation of Spanish passers. Perhaps being different accounted for his international career and his status as a World Cup winner. 

A touchline-hugging winger can seem another relic in the modern game. It is a role that requires an end product. Navas' capacity to hit the first defender with crosses is almost unrivalled, even if inaccuracy can occasionally pay off. Two City goals have stemmed from misdirected Navas centres, the Spain international failing to find teammates only for Chelsea's Gary Cahill and Hull's Ahmed Elmohamady to apply the finishing touch.

It would cap a remarkable revival albeit, in Navas' understated way, without generating much fanfare. Beyond the possibility of a return to his native Seville and his former club Sevilla, few may pursue Navas' signature whereas the scramble for Sanchez's services could take in some of the world's biggest clubs.

They are contrasting figures, one-dimensional and multi-dimensional players, impotent and potent wingers whose careers and duties get ever more different. But as City chase a place in the FA Cup final, much may rest on whether Navas can halt a potential teammate and turn Sanchez into a non-scoring winger for a day too.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.

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