After four largely prosperous years with Real Madrid, and one tough season at Old Trafford, Di Maria’s next move will only take his career on a downwards trajectory (given that neither Barcelona nor Bayern Munich are among his reported suitors).
If he does opt to seek pastures new, then Di Maria’s most likely destination would appear to be nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain. But, would the switch to the French capital, with its monstrous earning potential, genuinely fulfil a player who, at 27, is in his peak years?
Di Maria would be part of a club that, although advancing steadily in Champions League terms, is some way short of being ready to challenge for the major European trophy. Already incomprehensibly wealthy, the former Benfica man doesn’t need to chase the Euros on offer with PSG and, consequently, condemn his imminent future to one that involves the facile accumulation of domestic French honours.
A chief protagonist in Real’s fabled ‘La Decima’ European Cup triumph only last year, and winner of a La Liga title during his time at The Bernabeu, surely Di Maria would miss being at the cutting-edge of the continental game, should he abandon his English venture so hurriedly.
It could be argued that Di Maria had no qualms about missing a season of Champions League football when he signed for United in the first place. To counter that, though, he was joining a club and a manager, in Louis van Gaal, with shared histories of fighting for football’s major prizes.
What’s more, by breaking the British transfer record when they paid Real £59.7m for Di Maria’s services, the Red Devils were telling the player that not only were they intent on swiftly recapturing former glories, but that he would be a prominent factor in them launching their resurgence.
Although he didn’t set the world alight in his first outings in a United shirt, initial signs pointed towards Di Maria evolving into a key man for Van Gaal’s side. One impudent, chipped goal at Leicester City last September showcased the class that oozes from the attacker, when he is on song.
That United went on to subside in that particular game at the King Power Stadium, surrendering a 3-1 lead to lose 5-3 to their newly promoted hosts, was symptomatic of the confused, hesitant football that dogged Van Gaal’s early Old Trafford tenure. Di Maria wouldn’t prove immune to the inconsistencies plaguing his team, and the summer marquee recruit’s on-pitch contribution gradually tailed-off.
It was all a far cry from the joy of Lisbon in May 2014, when Di Maria was claiming the man-of-the-match accolade, having played the starring role in Real’s 4-1 Champions League final conquering of their city rivals, Atletico.
In the semi-final of the same competition, the red-hot wide-man had shone as Carlo Ancelotti’s men delivered a breathtaking display of counter-attacking football, to put holders Bayern Munich to the sword in their own Allianz Arena, demolishing the Germans 4-0, for a 5-0 aggregate victory.
Di Maria’s struggle to regularly reproduce that type of scintillating form in the north-west was perfectly encapsulated by his fortunes in United’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Arsenal in March.
After supplying a peach of a cross for Wayne Rooney to score an equalising first-half goal, Di Maria’s bubbling, underlying frustrations with life in Manchester came to the fore in the second period, when he reacted to a booking for diving by tugging at referee Michael Oliver. His resultant dismissal for that offence effectively consigned Di Maria to a personally dispiriting conclusion to the campaign.
Suspended for United’s subsequent win over Spurs, the record signing was squeezed into the periphery on his return, reduced to a substitutes’ brief as Van Gaal’s team strung together their most potent streak of the season.
It probably doesn’t help Di Maria, in his toughest times, that when he is below par he is prone to looking pretty awful. The more recognisable version is never far away, though: witness Argentina’s second-round World Cup game against Switzerland last year.
On that occasion, Di Maria played for 118 minutes as if cursed by a reverse Midas-touch. At that point, however, with the game drifting towards a stalemate, the forward clinically dispatched a finish beyond Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, to send the 1986 World Champions into the quarter-finals of the 2014 event.
Di Maria’s tournament was ended abruptly by a thigh injury sustained in his country’s last-eight win over Belgium. Elsewhere in Brazil, though, James Rodriguez had been taking the competition by storm. The attacker’s sumptuous displays as Colombia went deep into the finals were only ever likely to mean one thing: James would be Real Madrid’s 2014 Galactico recruit. The reported £63m spent on the Monaco man, in addition to an outlay of £24m on another star of the Brazilian summer, Germany’s Toni Kroos, signalled the end of Di Maria’s Bernabeu days.
Collateral damage in the Spanish giants’ idiosyncratic transfer dealings a year ago, the player who first drew the attention of wider audiences as a thrilling part of Benfica’s crack Portuguese championship winning side of 2009/2010, is not going to be forced out of Old Trafford in such unseemly fashion.
Indeed, unlike Real, who were all too ready to dispense with a player they considered expendable – more, one suspects, because he doesn’t live up to a certain poster-boy image, than due to his efforts on the field – United appear keen to hang on to their man. And if Van Gaal can coax Di Maria back to his sparkling best, the Argentine will be a tremendous asset for a team that is being built for the here and now.
The Argentinian’s direct style, his ability to eliminate opponents with his dribbling and close-control, his fleet-of-foot, tireless work-ethic and sound delivery all add up to a footballer who would enhance any side. Moreover, Di Maria’s attributes complement perfectly the midfield, full of endeavour and creativity, being formed by Van Gaal. His imagination and wit, meanwhile, are ideal bedfellows for the collection of like-minded forward-thinking players now in the Old Trafford ranks.
If Di Maria can’t resist the PSG ‘project’, then United would be losing a rare talent. He hasn’t brought his A-game to the Premier League yet – but, for a variety of reasons, plenty of exceptional footballers have fallen into a rut during otherwise gilded careers.
In his prime years and at a club that has unlimited ambition, Angel Di Maria can avoid such a fate, if he and Manchester United give each other one more chance.
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