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Messi's Angel of mercy: Di Maria's Copa America winner ends duo's 14 years of anguish with Argentina

17:00 BST 13/07/2021
Angel Di Maria Lionel Messi Argentina Copa America GFX
A reserve for much for the tournament, the winger had been told by his captain before the final that he would make the difference in the Maracana

As the final whistle sounded in Saturday's gruelling Copa America final win over Brazil in Rio, every Argentina player ran in unison to congratulate one particular team-mate.

Lionel Messi, already weeping openly in joy sprawled out on the turf of the Estadio Maracana, had finally ended his 14-year run of anguish in Albiceleste colours, and his colleagues embraced him one by one before hoisting him into the air.

However, there was also belated praise for another star, one who has accompanied Messi from the very beginning of his journey, suffering the same highs and lows, if not more, in international colours.

Victory, after all, spelled redemption for Angel Di Maria, who became a national hero at the very site of the most difficult moment of his career.

Seven years previously almost to the day, in that very stadium, and amid requests from Real Madrid that he not play lest injury ruin their summer transfer plans, Di Maria was left to kick his heels on the bench as Alejandro Sabella's Argentina were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the World Cup final.

The winger went on to endure back-to-back Copa defeats to Chile and growing criticism over his form in the Argentina shirt, particularly with regard to a supposed tendency to suffer physical problems when his team most needed him.

Nevertheless, his surprise inclusion in the starting line-up to face Neymar & Co. received a ringing endorsement going into this crucial decider.

“Messi told me that I was going to have [my chance], that this was my revenge, for the final I couldn't play, the Chile one, the United States one, the World Cup here,” an emotional Di Maria told TyC Sports after the game.

“It came true, I was here. What could have happened if I had been in the other finals. Football is like that, second chances are like that and I can see it was supposed to be today.

“I still can't believe it, I couldn't even cry. A lot of people were telling us not to come back to the national team, but that's all over now and thank God we could get this title we so desired.

"Beating Brazil here... Leo said it before, we had to win it here and we did.”

Messi's faith proved well-placed. The only goal of a tense, often heavy-handed game with fouls flying in from all directions came via the Paris Saint-Germain ace, who found the key to unlock the Brazil defence half an hour into proceedings.

Rodrigo De Paul's laser-guided pass eluded Renan Lodi and landed into the path of the flying Di Maria. With one touch of his left foot, he gained control, while the second chipped the ball over the head of Ederson and into the net.

It was, incredibly, the first goal any Argentine had scored in the five finals Messi has played for his country at senior level, and it proved decisive.

Few would have picked Di Maria out as a potential match-winner beforehand, of course. The 33-year-old had often struggled to reproduce his best football with the Albiceleste and, before the weekend, he had started just a single game at the Copa, laying on the assist for Alejandro Gomez to help see his side past Paraguay.

His previous outings in 2021, against Chile (twice) and off the bench to face Uruguay, had failed to dispel the doubts over Di Maria, who had lost his place to Nicolas Gonzalez. While that trademark energy and desire to take the ball was still there, so was the infuriating tendency towards over-complication and aimless crosses.

However, if the player's resurgence in time for the final, having impressed off the bench against both Ecuador and Colombia in the run-up, was the perfect answer to his critics (including this writer), it was also a victory for coach Lionel Scaloni, who, like Di Maria, has seen his methods questioned time and time again since taking over in the wake of the 2018 World Cup fiasco.

Though often accused of tactical ignorance, Scaloni saw that between Lodi – occasionally distracted in his duties while out of possession – and the ageing legs of Thiago Silva, Argentina might find a potential opening in Brazil's otherwise watertight backline.

The inclusion of Di Maria's pace on the right was specifically designed to exploit that weakness and, in the marvellous De Paul, Argentina's finest player in the Copa next to Messi, they had the right man to set him loose.

“It was Rodri's pass,” Di Maria continued after the match. “Before the game I had told him that the full-back [Lodi] went to sleep sometimes while marking. It was a perfect pass, I took it down, it came up on the half-volley and finished like against Nigeria in the Olympic Games.”

The reference to Beijing 2008 is significant. In China, a star-studded Albiceleste side featuring the likes of Messi, Angel, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago and Juan Roman Riquelme finished first, with the winger netting the only goal in the final.

That golden generation of talent was expected to go on to conquer the world of football, but amid final heart-break, constant instability in its management and the Argentine FA's own chronic failings, it fell short of those high hopes, effectively coming to an end in the rubble of the Russia campaign without a single title to its name.

Just four survivors of 2018 – Messi, Di Maria, Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Acuna – were on the pitch for kick-off in the Maracana, with another handful, including Sergio Aguero, making the bench.

Scaloni's renovation has been ruthless at times, ushering a number of household names into retirement, but this current crop have struck up an enviable bond on and off the pitch – one of the keys to their success against the odds.

Still, the old guard remain important. The pain and anger experienced by the likes of Messi and Di Maria over years of near-misses meant they could not have been motivated for this Copa America, even in the most troubled of circumstances amid the Covid pandemic, playing on unprepared, sub-standard pitches in the last-minute host nation and to the echoes of deserted stadiums.

Angel was left with his ankle swollen to the size of an orange after the game after twisting the joint on one of the Maracana divots – having beaten Lodi once more – but he refused to come off, completing the 90 minutes and pushing and harrying Brazil to the very end.

This was his triumph as much as Leo's or any player on the Argentina team, and all the sweeter given the pain, both physical and psychological, he has faced and beaten just to take the field in Rio de Janeiro and finally send his nation into ecstasy.