Angel Di Maria hasn’t given this one up, at least not without a fight.
This season it was expected that the Argentine would drop out of the Real Madrid lineup and find a place on the bench, or, worst case scenario – for Madrid especially – he would have simply been sold before the closure of last summer’s transfer window.
He didn’t have a place in the starting XI, it seemed. Gareth Bale’s transfer fee alone makes him a feature in the team if available – and if he’s not performing, something, without pointing fingers, will intervene.
Di Maria wasn’t sold last year, when it appeared he, not Mesut Ozil, would be moving to Arsenal. Carlo Ancelotti insisted that the Argentine be retained, citing the need for balance and, obviously, a wide player who can stay wide if instructed. Di Maria found fortune in Bale’s injury and lack of fitness. Bar Luka Modric, it’s difficult to think of a player who was better in the white of Madrid during the first half of the season than the Argentine winger.
Following the winter break and a steady run of form from Bale, it would have been expected that Di Maria would finally drop out of the team. Not only did Ancelotti keep him in the starting XI, he used him in an unusual but nevertheless highly effective role in the centre of midfield.
The Italian coach’s tweak to the system has been to the overall benefit of the team. Instead of working with a two-man pivot and three just ahead, Ancelotti has dropped Di Maria into the midfield alongside Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric, where he’s flourished.
That, however, hasn’t stopped him from working the flanks. Against Barcelona at the Bernabeu, Di Maria moved onto Ronaldo’s left hand side, with the Portuguese moving centrally, and tore through the unprotected Barca defence. Neymar came in for particular criticism due to his disinterest in tracking runners.
That Clasico was arguably Di Maria’s finest performance of the season, a season which has been without doubt his best since moving to Spain.
In the absence of Ronaldo, it has been Di Maria who has looked the leader of this Real Madrid attack, not, as expected, Gareth Bale. Against Almeria this past weekend, Di Maria sounded off three shots at goal – one, a stunning effort which thundered off the crossbar – before eventually opening the scoring with his fourth attempt in the 28th minute. His most audacious effort, though, came with an in-swinging shot from a corner. And upon second viewing, it was undoubtedly a shot at goal.
Di Maria has finally stepped up to become the consistent attacking threat that his price-tag and undeniable talent has been demanding. In the past, his good performances would be punctuated with acts of petulance, play acting and all round dips in form. This season, it’s as if he’s been woken up by the threat of the newcomer Bale; an effort to prove to Madrid just what they would be giving up if they go ahead with a sale in the summer.
Monaco have been the name most regularly linked, but like the wastefulness of Radamel Falcao’s talents in an arena without spectators, Di Maria should be a top target for teams with a higher standing in European football than the recently promoted Ligue 1 side.
Manchester United’s rebuild will kick into gear this summer, with a complete overhaul of the squad expected. Juan Mata has already been added, but Di Maria is a far more natural fit on the right side of attack.
Not only is Di Maria in fantastic form for Real Madrid, he’s also exactly what Man United are in need of: a good winger; a spectacular winger, even; but importantly an effective winger.
What a marker of intent it would be for United if they were to swoop for a player of this calibre, showing not only their ability to get deals done for players of Di Maria’s stature, but also that they understand how to properly rebuild a squad with pieces that are necessary and that work with those who are to be retained for next season.
United could be in danger of repeating the mistakes of last summer. The flirtation from Toni Kroos could simply be an act to kick his current employers into offering what he feels he deserves in the way of a new contract. With Di Maria, there appears to be a far easier route to landing an established world-class player, and one who will make the current United team far better.