When a long and arduous saga eventually saw Florentino Perez’s cheque book eventually break Daniel Levy’s resistance last summer, it became clear that there were two people on Carlo Ancelotti’s bus. Some would have to get off. The obvious choice was Angel Di Maria.
After all, Bale was more likely to line up in Di Maria’s favorite position, the right-sided player in an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation. However, the collective eyebrows of the footballing fraternity were raised when Mesut Ozil completed a £42.4 million move to Arsenal on transfer deadline day last summer, days after Gareth Bale arrived at the Bernabeu as the world’s most expensive player. Not because of the enormity of the transfer fee, a little because of Arsene Wenger’s willingness to spend anything more than a sixpence, but significantly because Real Madrid had just sold arguably the world’s most prolific playmaker in Ozil.
Let’s be honest, there is barely any club who would not want to have a player of Ozil’s class in their ranks. Having earned his spurs at Schalke and Bremen, Ozil completed the high profile move to the Bernabeu in 2010, the same year in which he made England and Argentina chase shadows at the World Cup in South Africa. His exit, which is rather unsurprising, considering Ozil had a major part to play in the sheer astronomical number of goals Ronaldo has accumulated in the last few years, having laid on goals on the plate for the Portugese superstar.
Di Maria had never been placed on a pedestal like Ozil and his performances over the previous three campaigns had gone under the radar in the presence of more household names in Ronaldo, Alonso and Ozil. But, while many questioned the logic behind keeping Di Maria and letting Ozil go, considering Ozil is widely regarded as the more complete footballer, Carlo Ancelotti has once again played a masterstroke.
Ancelotti went on to explain the decision, as reported in The Express – “I decided the departure of Ozil. I prefer Di Maria for the balance of the team. It is true, that maybe Di Maria has less quality than Ozil but on a profile of dynamism, character and help to the team I preferred Di Maria. With the arrival of Bale, it was better to have Di Maria than Ozil.” And there was no better way for Di Maria to thank his boss than to win the Champions League final for Real Madrid, and help complete their 12-year quest for the La Decima.
It was no less than an uphill struggle for Di Maria to re-assert himself in the team and to vindicate Ancelotti’s decision to keep him at the Bernabeu. Di Maria, atleast until the start of the campaign, was predominantly a winger with an over-reliance on his left foot, but with Bale’s dream debut delayed by injury, Di Maria stepped up to the plate, so much so that Ancelotti was willing to drop him in favor of Madrid’s latest golden-boy when he had a fully fit squad at his disposal. But Ancelotti’s vision for the 26-year old was a central midfield role in a midfield three. It wasn’t unfamiliar territory for Di Maria who had played the role for club and country in the past, but to live up to it on a regular basis would be a challenge.
A challenge he overcame with flying colors. Di Maria has been an absolute revelation in the middle of the park, his burst of pace and energy complementing Xabi Alonso’s industry and passing range and Luka Modric’s artistry. And dare I say Di Maria has been so often that player who has made the difference for Real in the big games, and to be the best player on the pitch with Ronaldo and Bale around takes some doing. The Argentine has reinvented himself as a box-to-box midfielder, showing fine defensive capabilities and a willingness to do the dirty work in defence, an attribute that is not necessarily appreciated in a club, with superstar worship at it’s core. And Di Maria has been equally significant going forward, his 17 assists in 34 games, is the highest by any player across Europe’s top five leagues.
And without the engine that is Di Maria driving Madrid, the season could have gone a lot differently for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. He starred in Real’s 3-0 first leg win over city rivals Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey, scoring one and setting up two. And while it was Gareth Bale who stole the headlines in the final with his darting run that ripped the Barca defence to shreds before slotting home the winner through the legs of Pinto, Di Maria scored the opening goal on that night and was a nemace all night long. And he chose the biggest night of his footballing journey yet to prove that he is well and truly Real’s man for the biggest of occasions. While the scoresheet may read that it was Gareth Bale who decided the match and Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo who sealed Atletico’s fate, it was once again Real Madrid’s understated, unsung hero who delivered the goods. It was Di Maria’s driving run and shot that forced goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to parry the ball into Gareth Bale’s path for the Welshman to script a fairytale ending to his first season for the all-whites.
Atletico seemed to be preoccupied with stopping Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale, but it was Di Maria who looked like their biggest threat all night long. It is in these big matches that Di Maria’s never-say-die attitude comes through and marks him out from his teammates. While his former teammate Ozil was found lacking on the big occasions for Arsenal, Di Maria produced some of his best displays in the crunch games. While Ozil’s talent has never been in doubt, his attitude and his ability to lead his side by example have often come under the scanner.
The German often cuts a lacklustre figure when things go against the team, and had to be reprimanded by teammate and compatriot Per Mertesacker when he opted to head straight down the tunnel at the Etihad instead of acknowledging the fans, after Arsenal were routed 6-3 by Yaya Toure and co. Talent counts for little if you don’t back it up with the right attitude. Thankfully, for Real Madrid’s sake, the man Ancelotti chose to keep on the bus led them to their coveted La Decima.