LEAGUES

Everyman Di Maria steps out of the shadows at Estadio da Luz

4 months ago
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Kylian Mbappe and Neymar will be PSG's headline attractions this weekend but Angel Di Maria again showed his worth against RB Leipzig.

If you gathered together all the footballers over the past decade with a career equal or superior to that of Angel Di Maria, social distancing would be no problem at all. There really are not that many.

And yet, his has always felt like the role of sideman rather than superstar, be it accompanying Cristiano Ronaldo at club level or supplying Lionel Messi for Argentina.

If Paris Saint-Germain do leave Lisbon with the big prize this weekend, the manner in which Neymar and Kylian Mbappe swaggered during the 3-0 semi-final dismissal of RB Leipzig means it is easy to imagine them stamping their names all over a landmark triumph for the Ligue 1 champions.

In many respects it would continue the story of Di Maria's career – always hanging with the in-crowd, but never with the coolest shoes or slickest hairstyle. It's a fair bet the 32-year-old winger has never worn anything as racy as the suit Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann rolled out for the occasion at Estadio da Luz.

REGRETS AND REMONTADAS

Di Maria was arguably the most consistently effective performer in Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid side that claimed Champions League glory in 2014, shuttling with relentless menace from the left of a midfield three.

But Sergio Ramos scored an injury-time equaliser in the final against rivals Atletico in the same stadium Di Maria graced brilliantly on Tuesday. Then Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo scored in extra time. Angel who?

The brains trust at the Santiago Bernabeu certainly appeared to forget how important he was as he was shipped off to Manchester United for what was a British record £59.7million.

Di Maria scored three goals in his first five games for United, including an utterly delicious chip at Leicester City. United lost that berserk game at the King Power Stadium 5-3, Louis van Gaal decided the revolution would not feature entertainment, and Di Maria had his house targeted by burglars.

Next stop Paris, where an unfortunate pattern of glorious highs immediately preceding collective ignominy continued.

He was utterly electrifying as PSG thumped Barcelona 4-0 in the knockout stages of the 2016-17 Champions League. The following month, Unai Emery's men froze as they went down to a scarcely credible 6-1 reverse in the Camp Nou return.

In a defiant showing last season, he set up both goals in a 2-0 win at United in the last 16. Once again, PSG fluffed their lines and lost 3-1 at the Parc des Princes.

Later in 2019, Di Maria was dropped during Argentina's run to the semi-finals of the Copa America – another failure to help Messi to an elusive international prize. When the great man's fellow Rosario native scored a screamer against France in the World Cup a year earlier, the Albiceleste raggedly collapsed to a 4-3 loss and elimination.

ASSIST KING IN PARIS

Despite this picture of misfortune lurking behind every corner, Di Maria's body of work remains superb.

The majestic "score me" cross for Marquinhos' 13th-minute breakthrough against Leipzig was followed by another well-judged delivery for Juan Bernat's poached third. It was the fifth time in Di Maria's career he has supplied two assists in the same Champions League match.

Since his debut in the competition, his 27 assists are only bettered by Messi and Ronaldo, who have 32 each. The 89 goals he has set up since joining PSG in August 2015 puts him second to Messi (101) over the same period.

Between those interventions, Di Maria calmly slotted in PSG's second. Of course, Neymar's instinctive flick to lay on the chance will get just as much attention.

Even so, much of what Thomas Tuchel has put together to bring a once disparate assortment to the edge of glory is in Di Maria's image. Behind the A-listers up front, there is plenty of dutiful toil in a midfield combination of Marquinhos and Ander Herrera.

Di Maria is the man who bridges that gap between the cut-up turf and the stars with a little bit of everything. Neymar and Mbappe in return are doing all they can to match his insatiable work rate.

Plenty will be spoken and written over the coming days about what the PSG project reaching its ultimate goal might mean for football's soul. However bitterly such a triumph for the QSI collective might be received, it would be impossible to begrudge Di Maria – a giant of the era lurking in plain sight.

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