Among other things, Jurgen Klopp’s conclusion was clear and simple. “You can’t mark Di Maria,” was what he said after Borussia Dortmund had played Real Madrid during the 2012-2013 Champions League group stages.
Klopp would find a way as his Dortmund later on defeated Madrid in that season’s Champions League semis. But after meeting them again in the knockout rounds of the 2013-2014 Champions League, Klopp had to watch once more as Angel Di Maria ran rings around his defence.
It does help that Di Maria is at Real Madrid — the most expensively assembled team in football history. It also helps that alongside him is Cristiano Ronaldo — one of the greatest footballers of his generation and definitely among the pantheon of the greats. The other player of that calibre is Lionel Messi. He is Di Maria’s teammate at international level.
A rare prestige thus falls upon Di Maria. For club and country, he plays with two of the game’s immortals. As such though, that privilege is in itself a curse. Di Maria is very well a star in his own right. He is therefore living under the shadow of Messi and Ronaldo.
Not that he seems to mind. The left footed dazzler almost seems comfortable in this position. His humility seems to prevent him from wanting to be the main man. Center of attraction is not his staple; he is the force pulling beyond these two stars’ gravity; the ray shining where the light is not as bright as it is perceived to be.
He is capable assistant; majestic sidekick. Best supporting actor to academy award winning performances from Messi and Ronaldo. He is the unsung hero; the rarely appreciated under-master. Di Maria is the Guardian Angel rarely given the credit he deserves.
As such, his adaptability has made his ability rise to such a high level. From being a left footed attacking winger, Di Maria is now more than just that. His left foot is still his greatest asset; his attacking prowess still a powerful tool — but he has become a more positional, more defensive contributor as his career has gone on.
His work rate means that he can track back — a quality that Ronaldo particularly lacks and thus to Ronaldo’s immense attacking ability, Di Maria brings about the team balance. His positional sense on the other hand has meant that Alejandro Sabella was willing to experiment with him as a midfielder during Argentina’s qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup. Carlo Ancelotti would confirm that, the Italian deploying Di Maria in a midfield three for Real Madrid.
The reasons for this are simple. Both Madrid and Argentina are blessed with incredible attacking quality. Thus playing Di Maria in midfield accommodates Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Ronaldo, — or —, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Messi.
But it is not just about selfless adaptability. Di Maria also has outstanding ability. His performances have proved key in big games, his goals and assists and all round play has been decisive at the very highest level.
You could go all the way back to his youth playing days for examples. At the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup —the tournament at which he and goalkeeper Sergio Romero emerged — he was instrumental as Aguero led Argentina to become world youth champions.
A year later at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was at the fore, scoring an extra time winner against Holland in the quarter finals and then, running onto a flicked pass from Messi to chip the Nigerian goalkeeper in the final.
Senior level has brough about similar achievements. In the 2011 Copa Del Rey final, it was his cross that saw Ronaldo head in the winner against rivals Barcelona. The 2013 Copa Del Rey semi-final saw him turn sharply inside out to leave Barcelona captain Carles Puyol doing the splits, scrambling and crawling on the floor. It was also his mazy run in the 2014 Champions League final that saw his shot rebound off the goalkeeper and onto Bale, who scored the second to set the platform for Madrid’s decima win.
Thus, it was no surprise that when Argentina required him in a World Cup round of 16 tie against Switzerland, he was on hand to oblige. As Messi glided past players and set up Di Maria, his left foot casually placed the ball into the net to send Argentina through to the quarters.
Argentina have been underwhelming considerate to their wealth of talent. But whereas the game against Switzerland continued to raise doubts as to their claim to the world throne, Messi — as he has throughout the tournament — continued to raise the team. Helping him was Di Maria. He may not have the wings of an angel, but Di Maria has showed that he can also rise to the occasion.