Di Maria shines in Real's final friendly
If Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti and club president Florentino Perez had forgotten just how useful Angel Di Maria is to Real Madrid, the Argentine midfield engine not only offered a stern reminder of his qualities in Los Blancos' final friendly match of the preseason against Fiorentina on Saturday night, but he also ran the show and showed them exactly what they'll be missing if he heads for pastures new before the end of the month.
The former Benfica man has been linked with a move away from the Bernabeu throughout the summer, with Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain leading the chase for his signature, and his omission from Los Merengues' UEFA Super Cup victory over Sevilla last week only added weight to the reports suggesting he will be elsewhere when Madrid kick off their La Liga campaign against Cordoba in just over a week.
Another omission in a friendly against the Florence club in Warsaw, Poland, would have provided the biggest hint yet of a move away from the Spanish capital, with the European champions looking to protect their big-money asset from picking up an injury that could well have thwarted a transfer. As it was, the jet-heeled winger started, lasted the distance and provided a man-of-the-match performance, despite Madrid's 2-1 defeat to the Italians.
Whether that performance was to fight for a place in Madrid's first team next season following the summer arrivals of James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos or to provide potential suitors with another glimpse of his capabilities is up for debate.
Argentina's World Cup star provided the assist for Cristiano Ronaldo's third-minute opener, put another chance on a plate for Karim Benzema only to see the effort chalked off for offside and was a thorn in the side of Fiorentina's defence throughout the match, as he carved out a number of chances for his teammates and came agonizingly close to grabbing a late equaliser. The party tricks came out too to ensure everyone was taking note. A message saying "this is what you can have" to potential suitors; a message saying "'this is what you could miss" to Madrid.
"Nothing has changed," Ancelotti said in the prematch press conference when referring to the situation surrounding Di Maria and Sami Khedira, who has also been linked with a move away from the club.
"They're Real Madrid players," he said. "I chose other players for the European Super Cup. Only Kroos played from among those who arrived on 5 August. Today it would be good for them to get some game time and improve their fitness."
Not exactly a commitment to keep the duo at the Bernabeu -- and while Di Maria showcased qualities that should see him comfortably command a place in Los Blancis' first-team for the coming campaign, the feeling is Saturday night's friendly was very much a shop window for the pair, as the transfer market edges closer to slamming shut.
While Di Maria shone, Khedira struggled to provide a performance that suggests he is a must-have signing for either Premier League Arsenal or Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, the teams reported to be leading the chase for his services this summer. Reports in Spain also suggested Fiorentina are interested in the midfielder and talks would be undertaken while the sides went head-to-head. His performance would have hardly helped those talks.
The World Cup winner might have had an off-day, but that was not aided by Madrid's approach to the game. Rodriguez was handed a start in a 'false 9' role, a move that didn't pay off. Instead, Khedira looked to move more into that position, but the fluency, or lack of it, in Madrid's attacking play didn't help matters. At the other end of the pitch, the German caused as many problems as he solved in helping out a second-choice back-four.
In contrast to some thrilling attacking play, especially in Tuesday night's Super Cup success, Madrid's defence has left plenty to be desired. Ancelotti plucked for his back-up defence, and that didn't help Keylor Navas on his Blancos debut. The Costa Rican could do nothing on Fiorentina's two goals, but he did provide some top-class saves to give his manager a selection headache going into next week's Spanish Super Cup double-header against Atletico Madrid. Ancelotti said he would make a decision on his No.1 for the match after the trip to Poland, and he's been left with a tough call.
There was no Gareth Bale, but Ronaldo played the first half and grabbed the opener. While the cynics will, perhaps rightly, suggest the club's talisman only got some time out on the pitch to keep the organisers of the friendly match happy with the terms of the contract, a strong 45 minutes should act well for the Portuguese after a preseason hampered by injury. A man-of-the-match showing in Cardiff and another injury-free and strong outing this weekend leaves Ronaldo in good shape as the competitive matches edge closer.
The performance of Rodriguez still leave question marks over just where he'll fit into Ancelotti's regular first choice, but reading between the lines, it seems the Italian will rotate him between a midfield role and a 'false 9' role with Isco, at least in the early stages of the season. The Colombian had a few flashes of quality, as he did in the UEFA Super Cup, and the tinkering of the formations and lineup will not have helped, as will the need for him to get in tandem with his new teammates.
Madrid's final friendly match provided more questions than answers, but plenty of those should be answered when Los Blancos step things up a notch in search of their second trophy of the season in next week's Spanish Super Cup.