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Will the Real Di Maria please stand up? Man Utd flop still not back to his Madrid best

12:56 GMT 13/02/2017
HD Angel Di Maria
The Argentine has been a decisive influence at the very top level before, and with Barcelona looming it seems he has rediscovered his motivation

When Real Madrid won La Decima in 2014, the influence of Angel Di Maria was hailed as one of the major factors that allowed the Bernabeu side to create history. Named man of the match on the historic occasion they defeated city rivals Atletico, he was not to linger long in Spain, with a British record move to Manchester United following in August.

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Di Maria’s spell at Old Trafford, though, was troubled. He never settled under Louis van Gaal, and having been used in a variety of positions was one of the high-profile casualties of what proved to be a thoroughly miserable campaign.

“He is one of the players who are in a row of players who have no self-criticism,” the Dutchman later stated, having been accused by his former charge of moving him around too much.

Seeking gamebreakers to lift them to an elite level, Paris Saint-Germain were quick to pounce for the former Rosario and Benfica man, splashing out £44 million on a player United had paid nearly £60m for 12 months earlier.

After making a bright start in France, he has endured a difficult second campaign and is only now beginning to get going again.

A spectacular performance off the bench in Monaco on his PSG debut set the bar high. Given just 24 minutes to impress, he produced one fine assist and showed the kind of silky touches that had ultimately won him acclaim in Spain.

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Even if the rest of the season did not live up to that standard, it could be considered relatively strong. No-one could touch him when it came to setting up goals in Ligue 1 – he created 18 in total, five more than his nearest rival and club-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Additionally, he supplied two decisive passes as Chelsea were seen off in the Champions League last 16.

Not necessarily signed as a goal scorer, he would contribute an impressive 15 times on that front.

PSG could have struggled to ask for more as they claimed the domestic treble, with Di Maria performing well in a strong supporting cast around the Swede. This season, however, has been a different story.

With Ibrahimovic having left for the patch of Manchester that he found impossible win over, the 28-year-old was expected to step forward to become one of the stars of the team. Expectations heightened that he could contribute his regular scoring while maintaining his prolific rate of creating for others.

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Until the last fortnight, that simply has not been the case.

The first half of the campaign finished with Di Maria having scored just three goals, including only one in the league, and having created seven more – well down on his pace the previous year. He seemed to be slipping into the void that Zlatan left rather than filling it.

Indeed, it was not until Julian Draxler arrived shortly after Christmas and threatened to take his place that the real Di Maria came to play.

Head coach Unai Emery took the bold step of omitting him from his starting XI under the cover of squad rotation. In reality, it was an admission that Lucas Moura, himself a much-improved figure, and January signing Draxler had overtaken him in the pecking order.

The German’s arrival in Paris seems to have lit a fire under his rival, which bodes well for the conclusion to the campaign – both at home and abroad.

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Having been alerted to the scale of his problems at PSG, Di Maria is threatening to rediscover the form that made him invaluable to Real Madrid in their clutch moments at the end of 2013-14. He was his side’s best player in the 2-1 win over Lille, and last Friday in Bordeaux, he both scored and created another.

Thomas Meunier is clear why there has been a sharp improvement from his South American cohort.

“The competition,” the Belgian explained after the 3-0 success at Stade Matmut Atlantique at the weekend. “Everyone knows that places are expensive, that from one week to the next you could be on the bench or on the field. 

“If we want to have a chance to play games, we have to really work at training and in the games, to show we’re capable – and that’s what happened.

“Draxler is a very, very good player, and everyone understands that. Angel, quite simply, he doesn’t want to be a substitute. He’s been metamorphosed. He is just putting a little more in.”

Di Maria, it seems, is starting to show the fight that he was accused of lacking in Manchester, but how long he is prepared to show this level of motivation for is a question that can only be answered by time.

Carlo Ancelotti, the man who, as Madrid boss, saw the best of the player during his blistering spell in the first half of 2014, did not exactly give him a rousing reference when he told Eurosport : "Some players love to compete, others prefer to make more money. If a player needs motivation to play at the best club in the world, I have no problem in letting him go."

Nevertheless, the Bayern Munich boss would later praise the player for his unique ability to "take matches by storm with his energy". That, however, requires motivation, and that, it seems, it Di Maria's weakness.

If he is to re-emerge as a star capable of carrying PSG to the very top, as he did with Madrid, Tuesday’s Champions League meeting with Barcelona would be a great place to start - and if he needs any extra incentive to shine upon such a great stage, then his best days really are behind him.