Angel Di Maria will get the chance to prove Premier League doubters wrong
It seemed to be the transfer that couldn’t fail.
As Angel Di Maria strode down the side of the Old Trafford pitch chuckling with his new manager Louis van Gaal in the summer of 2014, Manchester United appeared to have finally found a worthy candidate to fill their celebrated No.7 jersey.
Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen were among the less worthy recent recipients of the shirt worn with pride by the likes of George Best, Bryan Robson, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo down the generations, but Di Maria looked to be every inch a United icon in the making when he arrived for a club record fee.
After all, he was still basking in the glory of earning man of the match plaudits in the Champions League final from the previous May, with his sparkling performance helping Real Madrid to achieve their mystical La Decima (tenth) triumph in the competition.
There wasn’t even too many gasps of disbelief as United shattered the British transfer record to hand over a £59.7m fee United to sign Di Maria, as all observers were convinced that this Argentine international was worth it, whatever his price tag.
How wrong we all were.
A little under a year later, the by then discredited Di Maria was photographed undergoing a medical with Paris Saint-Germain officials in Doha - apparently without the permission of Manchester United - as he did all he could to end his miserable stay at Old Trafford, with the stain on his reputation leaving an indelible imprint.
We heard all about how Di Maria struggled to settle in Manchester, how a burglary at his house unsettled his wife, why his style of play was not suited to the Premier League and the role Van Gaal’s depressing football philosophy played in his demise and yet the truth was so much easier put into words: Di Maria never wanted to be at United in the first place.
Having set his heart on a move to PSG when his time at Real Madrid came to an end, his disappointment at the Parisians forced withdrawal from the bidding for his talents meant he had little option other than to join United.
Financial Fair Play rules restricted PSG from completing the deal and so began an ill-conceived transfer that left all involved with so many questions to answer.
Quite why this wonderfully gifted attacking star was reluctant to join one of the world’s biggest football clubs is open to debate, but anyone whose heart is not in their job will struggle to fulfill their potential and that appears to have been the problem for Di Maria from the off at United.
Flashes of brilliance like his wondrous chipped goal in only third appearance for the club at Leicester in September 2014 confirmed the mastery he could offer, yet not even his most loyal supporter was willing to step up to be part of his defence council by the end of a season that quickly saw him labeled as the most expensive flop in Premier League history.
United did well to collect around £44m when they sold him to PSG last August, but the whole story left a nasty taste, with the perception that Di Maria was unwilling to embrace the opportunity United handed to him lingering to this day.
“My move to PSG could have happened before this summer but it didn’t for financial reasons and I ended up going to United. I could not say no,” he stated in an interview last year that saw him confirm he would rather have stayed at Real Madrid or move to PSG than join Van Gaal’s now evidently doomed Old Trafford revolution.
“Man Utd was a sad experience. I don’t even remember any more what happened and I don’t want to remember. I am happy to be here and that’s the most important thing.”
Predictably, success with PSG has come Di Maria’s way this season, but being a star player in a team that is24 points ahead of their domestic rivals in a second-rate league is hardly the epitaph great footballers would want etched on to their headstones.
Is Di Maria still a world class performer or a should he be seen as a player who has lost his fire, sold his soul to football’s money men and content to sit back and relax on PSG’s easy street?
We will get a chance to pass some kind of judgment on a player who gives off a whiff that he is a mercenary of the modern game when he takes to the field against Chelsea in the last-16 of the Champions League on Tuesday night, yet this 28-year-old is likely to be forever be tarnished in the eyes of many who will not forget his misery in Manchester.
It is easy to blame Van Gaal for Di Maria’s failure at United, but world-class footballers find a way to rise above the mediocrity of those around them to confirm that their brilliance is enduring.
United fans and all viewers of the Premier League felt cheated by the diluted version of Di Maria that showed up at Old Trafford, but maybe this was a story of a footballer who turns his talents on and off when he deems fit.
Such an ugly trait is not the mark of a truly world class sportsman.