Di Maria back on form after being 'freed'

Angel di Maria celebrating Paris Saint-Germain's first goal against Chelsea in the Champions League last-16 second-leg tie. The Argentinian was involved in both of PSG's goals in their 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge.
Angel di Maria celebrating Paris Saint-Germain's first goal against Chelsea in the Champions League last-16 second-leg tie. The Argentinian was involved in both of PSG's goals in their 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • There was a reason Manchester United made Angel di Maria the most expensive signing in the club's history and, if that point had been lost around Old Trafford, the Argentinian seemed intent on reminding an English audience on Wednesday.

The di Maria who walked out at Stamford Bridge was not quite the outstanding player in the Champions League final in Lisbon in 2014, supreme on the game's biggest stage even in the company of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. But he gave it a really good go.

Ultimately, a peripheral figure at United who fell out with Louis van Gaal over the manager's rigid, tactical demands - by no means the only one, but the only one who cost £59.7 million (S$117.4 million) - he was instrumental in both goals for Paris Saint-Germain.

United lost £16 million when they sold him, and it never seemed to make much sense given the lack of penetrative players at Old Trafford.

Di Maria, 28, began assertively in London, but then he had every incentive. His direct opponent was Kenedy, 20, who has played left-back for Chelsea before, including on his Premier League debut, but not on a stage like this, a do-or-die Champions League tie.

For PSG's opening goal, di Maria dragged Kenedy inside and then rolled the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was running into the space he had vacated. The Swede's cross picked out Adrien Rabiot for the tap-in.

Di Maria was involved in the French club's second goal, too, in the 67th minute.

Having played the ball inside, he floated undetected behind Cesar Azpilicueta and skipped clear when the return pass came.

The makeshift Chelsea defence had been completely pulled out of shape once more and di Maria was not about to spurn the opportunity, squaring the ball for Ibrahimovic to thump into the roof of the net.

Di Maria's contribution, including 87 of his 92 passes finding their intended target, was telling. He left an English audience trying to work out whether this was the same player who had been so timid at Old Trafford, seemingly inhibited by the tactical demands of van Gaal.

The Argentinian has been liberated by Laurent Blanc, switching flanks to good effect on Wednesday, always looking to run with the ball or release team-mates.

There is a freedom within a framework to Blanc's gifted side.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'Di Maria back on form after being 'freed''. Print Edition | Subscribe