A moment of inspiration from Angel Di Maria last night ensured that Paris St Germain retained a 24 point lead at the top of Ligue 1 following a 1-2 triumph away at Olympique de Marseilles.
With the game level at 1-1 with 19 minutes to play, Di Maria received possession from a Zlatan Ibrahimovic cutback at the edge of the Marseilles box and slalomed past the covering defender, Brice Dja Djedje, before cracking a hard and low shot into Steve Mandanda’s bottom left hand corner.
It was a goal of outstanding quality and gave expression to many of the characteristics which mark the Argentine out as such a special talent.
In the first instance, Di Maria displayed exceptional positional intelligence in creating so much space for himself in the opposition’s final third and the quick feet that he showed in evading Dja Djedje is testament, not only to his outstanding technical quality, but also to a far above average speed of thought and a remarkable ability to anticipate defensive movements.
The composure that Di Maria showed in guiding the ball past Mandanda into the Marseilles goal, meantime, is the hallmark of any elite-level athlete in any discipline: the ability to maintain peak performance and decide the biggest matches under extreme pressure.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course.
Di Maria arrived in Paris in a £44.3 million deal from Manchester United last August with Champions League and La Liga winners medals to his name as well as a World Cup final appearance, and he has already scored 12 goals in 24 starts in all competitions, laying on a further 10 assists.
Indeed, the 27-year-old has been one of Europe’s standout creative midfielders this term, averaging 1.9 dribbles, 2.9 shots and 3.4 key passes per match while posting an 81 percent completion stat from an average of 53 passes. To put these figures into context, Real Madrid midfielder, James Rodriguez, has averaged only 0.7 dribbles, 1.5 shots and 2.9 key passes per match this season, posting an 86 percent completion rate from an average 45 passes.
These stats make Real’s decision to sell Di Maria in order to accommodate the acquisition of James just weeks after the former had won the man of the match award in the Champions League Final even more difficult to fathom. It is also notable that the Argentine has been making a consistent difference in big matches this season. He starred in a 1-0 defeat away against his old club in the Champions League last November, for instance, and assisted three against Lyon in Ligue 1 before netting a brace against high-flying Angers last month.
However, Di Maria’s success in Paris cannot help but grate with Manchester United fans who have been calling for their team to play with more attacking intent all season. Just hours before the Rosario native began carving up the Marseilles defence in order to give PSG an unassailable lead at the top of Ligue 1, Manchester United succumbed to a late draw at Chelsea which leaves them a full 12 points off leaders Leicester in fifth in the table.
Manchester United are the joint lowest scoring team in the top half of the Premier League table, they have won only five of their last 15 league fixtures and failed to replace Di Maria with a player of remotely the same caliber last summer. And while it is true that the Argentine never fully adapted to English football in the year that he spent at Old Trafford, he still finished the season as United’s top assist-maker (10) and created an impressive 51 chances in 27 appearances.
There was clearly an issue of on and off field integration blighting Di Maria’s time in Manchester (the attempted break-in at his family’s home hardly helped) and many suggested that the player never wanted to move to England in the first place. However, it is a part of Louis van Gaal’s remit as Manchester United manager to ensure that he creates an atmosphere in which the squad’s most gifted players are made to feel comfortable so that they can reach their top performance level.
The Dutchman failed utterly to get the best out of Di Maria last season and Paris St Germain are now benefiting from his lack of man-management ability.
[Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images]