World Cup 2014: Can Angel di Maria - the Noodle - satisfy Argentina’s cravings?
Ian Herbert in Brasilia considers the faith placed in by a nation that needs someone other than Lionel Messi to lift them
The call him El Fideo (the noodle) because he is all skin and bones: a very fragile frame on which to lay hopes of finally progressing beyond the World Cup quarter-finals again, at last.
But from Brasilia to Buenos Aires, Angel di Maria is the one they are all praying for today because he is the man most capable of making Argentina something more than the Lionel Messi show, and turning the team into something less ordinary.
The quarter-finals carry anxiety for the nation. Three times in the past 16 years Argentina have reached this stage and three times they have failed.
Argentinians are looking for more than the mere flashes Di Maria has shown of the sensational talent he displayed at Real Madrid last season.
Manager Alex Sabella’s conclusions after his performance in the round-of-16 win over Switzerland pretty much summed up the Di Maria we have seen this past month. “It seems the more minutes on the clock, the faster Di Maria runs,” he said.
The 26-year-old’s extraordinary energy levels are a trademark but what Sabella really needs now is the creative side of his game: his electricity as well as his tenacity.
We have not yet really seen Di Maria’s searing pace around the turf, nor his very distinctive running style – feet pointing upwards and knees high in an exaggerated type of sprint, creating a lethal threat one-on-one.
“With space he is dangerous; even without it he can find a way to go one-on-one,” his former Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho has said of him. It is the absence of all this which in part explains the emptiness at the heart of the Argentine game – the void that needs to be filled today as the team face their first fierce threat of the World Cup in the shape of Belgium.
Sabella was honest yesterday about the way Argentina’s hopes have become as hyper-inflated as the country’s economy. “People in Argentina always believe we are more than what we are,” he said. “Sometimes that’s good. At other times, it’s bad. It has its positive and negative sides. It’s the way we are. A cultural issue.
“When I was little I always heard we were the best in the world, but we’d never been world champions. And yet we were the best? It’s part of our culture.”
When you talk to Argentinian journalists about this team they will tell you they are nothing like the side, led by Diego Maradona, who lifted the trophy in 1986. A straw poll of six here yesterday found only one of the belief that Sabella’s boys are better. “Up and down,” said one, with a rollercoaster gesture, to the question of Di Maria’s contribution.
It was the failure of Gonzalo Higuain to fire that Sabella was questioned about. “He had a problem at the end of the season,” was his answer. “He was not able to train 100 per cent.”
But there is a history of ebbs and flows in Di Maria’s game too – one of them midway through the 2012/13 season which left Mourinho confiding in his staff that he did not know what was wrong with his player. He did not flourish at the 2010 World Cup either.
Sabella does not seem so unhappy with Di Maria. This most uncharismatic of managers launched into a rare rant yesterday about the need to “occupy spaces” and not just “attack” them – a defensive job for which Di Maria, with his work ethic, is well suited. The thrust of Sabella’s argument was that Argentina cannot be gung-ho, which felt like a terribly unambitious outlook for one of the nations we had been told were to be feared here.
Di Maria’s World Cup unfolds amid questions about whether he will still be with Carlo Ancelotti’s Real next season. The Spanish club would consider selling him if a huge offer came in, for complicated reasons. Real have moved away from the Jorge Mendes stable – of which Di Maria is one – and there has always been a sense in Madrid that the €25m (£19m) Mourinho insisted be paid out to Benfica for him was too much. He is not the most photogenic player in the team either; not the best way of selling Real Madrid around the globe.
Ancelotti is deeply unhappy about the idea of him leaving. Di Maria grabbed his crotch in an apparent act of dissent in January, when substituted, but Ancelotti launched a strong defence of him. Di Maria would be a fit for Manchester United, though.
You certainly sense a desire among Argentinians for him to pitch a blue-and-white flag across the tournament. While Messi took his talents to Europe early, the stories of Di Maria’s mother accompanying him to Rosario on her bicycle, with the boy’s three-year-old sister on the handlebars, are legend. When he played in last season’s Champions League final, his father ensured there was an Argentina flag in view, with the words “Di Maria, we are with you”.
Sabella may try other devices to engender greater creativity tonight. Fernando Gago may make way for Lucas Biglia in midfield, allowing greater exploitation of the space created by the focus on Messi. Federico Fernandez, who has not impressed in central defence, may make way for Manchester City’s Martin Demichelis – proof, if it were needed, that this is not a defence built on rock. Marcos Rojo is suspended, with Jose Basanta the most likely candidate to step in.
But Di Maria is the one who can take away the anxiety and Messi-dependence. Sabella, for whom Sergio Aguero will not start, insisted his team did not require the same psychological preparation that the Brazilians have been put through. “We handle things differently,” he said. “The pressure on Brazil is greater. We try to relax.”
But it took one sentence from Sabella to sum up the thin line between triumph and disaster at this stage. As the national manager, he said, “you are extraordinary. You are a phenomenon. And if you lose you are useless.”
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