This was the Angel Di Maria final — then he came off and Argentina very nearly fell apart

For one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds, Angel Di Maria was the best player in the world.

It was the same day that 35-year-old Lionel Messi kissed the World Cup trophy to cement his place as the greatest footballer of all time, and his historic performance deserved it. The outstanding player of the tournament, Kylian Mbappe, would score three goals after the 80th minute and leave no doubt as to who would take over when Messi was gone.

Also Read :  A former NBA champion is changing 'how the world builds' to fight the climate crisis

But in the first hour of the match, the big names were second best. It was Argentina’s second aging winger, not Messi, who converted the first penalty and scored the second to give his side a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. The game ran through him like a high-voltage current. France could not escape this thin, slippery electric eel of a man.

Also Read :  Fantasy Premier League: What to do with Manchester City players, double gameweek tips

This was without a doubt the finale of Angel Di Maria.

And then he got off.

Maybe it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Of all Di Maria’s great gifts, her greatest seems to be underappreciated.

Also Read :  US soccer journalist Grant Wahl dies while covering World Cup in Qatar

He’s hard to pin down, to be honest. His smoldering coal eyes, razor-sharp cheekbones, and elfin ears protruding from his impossibly tall face make him look like an El Greco study of Franz Kafka, and his acting is every bit as whimsical and brilliant as it might lead you to hope. He’s a strange star because somehow he’s never really been a star.

(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

First, he doesn’t have a job. Or he has three of them. Over the past 15 years, Di Maria has played both on the wing and in attack for some of the world’s best teams and has looked a natural wherever his team needed him.

At the start of this World Cup, as in Argentina’s qualifiers, Di Maria lined up to the right of Messi. The wide threat kept the defense honest. Try to force Messi into the right half and Di Maria would slide in behind and beat you on the wing. Try to track Di Maria and Messi would be shaking loose between the lines.

It worked for them for the last year or so. Di Maria was playing on the right flank when he ran in behind Brazil’s back line and scored the only goal in last year’s Copa America final to give Argentina the first senior international trophy of Messi’s career.

But at this World Cup, playing on the right felt like a waste of Di Maria’s talents.

A heavily left-footed playmaker, Messi likes to dribble from right to left and look for killer diagonals on the opposite wing.

When left midfielder Giovani Lo Celso was fit, he could run onto these balls while Di Maria remained on the right. But when Lo Celso tore his hamstring a few weeks before the tournament, Lionel Scaloni never quite replaced him. Argentina played without a left winger, even though Messi could certainly have used one, even with Di Maria there.

That finally changed in the World Cup final against France. Di Maria moved to the left wing and Argentina, who had been sleepwalking for most of the tournament as a lifter, could have benefited whenever they had a little more yerba mate.

For more than an hour they were untouchable.

It was immediately clear what the team was missing. In the 12th minute, when Messi dribbled down the left side to look for a pass, he didn’t have to wait for his left-back to burst into an empty post. Di Maria was already high and wide to receive a diagonal behind the defense.

Di Maria knew exactly what he had to do next. He has been playing with Messi since 2008 (the year he ran onto Messi’s pass to score the goal that won Argentina the Olympic gold medal).

Without thinking, he placed the ball on his left foot, waited for Messi’s favorite late run, then fired a pass into the box. Only Aurelien Tchouameni’s sliding strike saved it from a typical Messi goal.

Two minutes later, when Di Maria’s dribble drew the French side into his own wing, Messi waved for the ball in the middle of the area and waited calmly as Di Maria rounded Adrien Rabiot and edged a pass between two defenders. boot.

Again, Di Maria instinctively knew what was coming next, so he turned and ran into the box, where he might have scored if Messi hadn’t misplaced the pass.

Pretty soon, Argentina were throwing almost anything to the left wing, trusting Di Maria to figure it out.

At one point, Messi drove up the middle and used his forgotten right foot to flick the ball in Di Maria’s general direction, which is about as high a compliment as he can give a pass receiver. On another occasion, he tried to use his right to flick a chest-high ball back over his shoulder without looking to push Di Maria in the back. (OK good, how to is as reliable as Messi.)

The ‘screw it, Di Maria’s in there somewhere’ tactic is how Julián Alvarez helped score Argentina’s first goal…

… and with a little more planning, their second…

But it wasn’t just Di Maria’s brilliance on the ball that made him so important. Playing a true left winger transformed the team and allowed Alexis Mack Allister to spark between the lines as a left attacking midfielder.

When he wasn’t dribbling circles around Gilles Koundi, Di Maria was rushing to cut off passing lanes for the right-back. That freed up Mac Allister behind him to mark Antoine Griezmann, whose floating midfield role has been key to France’s success throughout the tournament.

Without these two players, France was pure Jacques Tati ball. They crawled past the hour mark without a single shot, the second-worst start by any team at this World Cup (only Costa Rica, who didn’t shoot at all in their 7-0 humiliation of Spain) had a longer drought. .

But just when Argentina looked like they were going for the trophy, Scaloni made a near-fatal error.

After an hour, three minutes and 52 seconds of play, Di Maria left the field.

The next hour was a completely different game.

Bringing down the tired 34-year-old left-winger to allow defender Marcos Acuna to move to left midfield might have looked like a smart game-management move on paper, but it bogged down Argentina.

Take the sequence before France’s first goal. Mac Allister fought his way through the center line with his opponent on his back. Fifteen minutes earlier, he would probably have looked for an exit pass to Di Maria on the edge, but Acuna hung on halfway behind the ball. There was no way out and no way forward.

Without a good ball control structure on the left, Argentina were trapped against the right. France won the ball in that half, broke quickly and scored.

Less than two minutes later, Messi faced a similar problem. He dribbled down the left under great pressure and looked to clear the ball up the wing. Acuna was on top this time, but too narrow, not offering Messi the passing option he trusted. With no Di Maria to play the ball to, Messi slotted the ball in and France scored again to send the game into extra time.

It wasn’t just a few awkward moments. The switch to a unified 4-4-2 changed the way Argentina worked in possession – or, more often, didn’t work at all. Messi’s favorite diagonals completely dried up.

When Messi turned inside and looked down the left wing, he saw Acuna running to tie the game. By the time he did, it was usually too late.

What was supposed to be a defensive replacement backfired. With Argentina suddenly feeling off the ball, France found their rhythm and began to push forward. A game that was completely one-sided became something else.

As for Di Maria, he tried to attract his team from the sidelines. When Messi scored in added time, Di Maria slipped off the bench to celebrate with him in the front row of the training session.

(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

When Mbappe equalized again to send the game to penalties, the camera showed Di Maria sobbing into his shirt.

It wasn’t the first time he had to watch from the sidelines when the World Cup was on the line. In 2014, he pulled a muscle in the quarter-finals and missed the end of the tournament in Argentina. “I just want to win the World Cup,” he pleaded with his coaches at the time, insisting that painkillers would see him through to the final. “If you call me, I’ll play until halftime.”

There is no doubt that he would have done the same even now, at the age of 34. Scaloni must have wished he had let him. But this time, by the grace of Don Diego and La Tota, Argentina didn’t need him.

Di Maria’s one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds as the best player on the pitch – and Messi, the greatest player ever to do it – was enough for the World Cup.

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Articles

Back to top button