Friday 6 December 2019

Revitalised Di Maria a fallen angel no more as PSG look to conquer Champions League

Angel di Maria: Pivotal cog at PSG. Photo: Reuters
Angel di Maria: Pivotal cog at PSG. Photo: Reuters

Amy Lawrence

To fully understand the love affair between Paris Saint-Germain and Angel di Maria, a glance at the bigger picture is needed. Since the club began to be financed with a flourish by the investment arm of the Gulf state of Qatar, their domestic dominance has almost got out of hand. They have been title winners for three seasons in a row. The margin of supremacy over the rest this term means they could play in flip-flops for half of their remaining Ligue 1 games and still win the league comfortably. Their goal difference is on course to be preposterous.

The reason Qatar Sports Investments took over PSG in 2012 was not to become the best team in France. They want PSG to become the best team in Europe. There is a strategy to be a brand worth a billion dollars and to win the Champions League, and the purchase of Di Maria from Manchester United was a key stepping stone towards that aim.

The club president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, articulated that connection when the player signed last summer, proclaiming: "With him, we are more confident and closer to our dream of winning the Champions League." Manager Laurent Blanc echoes that idea: "With Di Maria's arrival we moved from 'PSG can't win the Champions League' to 'With him PSG can win the Champions League'."

That seems like considerable pressure to put on a player who had just emerged from a difficult season. But so far, Di Maria has taken to life in Paris in a way that suggests the club's excitement was not entirely misplaced. The Argentinian maverick, quite apart from being admired for playing in a style that has won the hearts of fans, has changed a few broader perceptions about the club, as was the plan. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was in his 30s when he joined the Paris project. At the opposite end of the scale Marco Verratti was in his teens. Di Maria arrived in his peak years, an A-lister who carries with him the stamp of success with Real Madrid and excellence with Argentina, and for PSG he has been superb.

Di Maria has rediscovered the zest and joy of playing that marked his time at the Bernabeu. He has a good relationship with a manager that understands him, and team-mates that click with him. He has become a pivotal cog in the way PSG play. So many moves go through him or to him, and goals and assists (some glorious to behold) have come freely. Recently, an outrageous volley against Angers, and a slick combination with Ibrahimovic to construct and finish the matchwinner at Marseille, demonstrated his renewed confidence perfectly.

The forgettable season at Manchester United is being filed away as an aberration. With hindsight, the oddest thing about that experience is not that it did not work out - a bad fit is not such an inexplicable thing in football, where a player and club are not cut out to bring the best out of each other. The curiosity was the speed of the break-up.

Having spent a record fee on a player with excellent pedigree, there seemed to be a certainty that under Louis van Gaal it was not worth persevering with. Plenty of players need time to adapt before they feel at home enough to be themselves. But this was a one-season write-off. United and Di Maria clearly did not see the point in working at this relationship. They just filed for a quickie divorce, allowing Di Maria to fall into the arms of someone new.

His influence since arriving in Paris has convinced the powers that be that more of the same is on the agenda for the club to push towards their biggest aim. After three successive quarter-final eliminations in the Champions League, it is a work in progress to try and reach the levels set by clubs such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Do not be surprised if PSG are aggressively in the hunt for any major attacking talent that could be tempted by a big money, ballooning salary move. Cristiano Ronaldo? Thomas Muller? Neymar? Any hint of a possibility and PSG intend to more than match the best offers around.

That is the next stepping stone that they want to reach. Blanc, who has extended his contract at the club to 2018, is under no illusions about what is expected. "Continuing the adventure is a show of faith but also a big responsibility," he says.

If PSG were underdogs when they met Chelsea last season in the last 16, the tie feels set up very differently this time. With their huge lead in Ligue 1, they are able to rest and rotate, and are fuelled by abundant confidence.

They have lost only one game this season, in the Champions League at Real Madrid in the group stage. But as it happened they were superb that night, dominating possession and playing scintillating stuff at the Bernabeu. They were beaten 1-0 but came off the pitch entitled to think that on another night they would have been worthy winners.

Ultimately, that they lost meant they would be runners-up in the group behind Real, and so in theory face a tougher last-16 opponent. But there was a psychological gain that came out of that game in Madrid. PSG know how good they can be, how unafraid of the kind of opponent they have found it difficult to match in recent years.

Since that strangely undeserved result in Madrid last November, PSG have gone on a run that makes convincing seem like an understatement. They have won 20 and drawn just two of their last 22 games.

For PSG, the league can take care of itself for now. Champions League progress is imperative.


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