Di Maria, Lo Celso giving Emery selection headache for PSG vs. Real
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League round-of-16 first-leg clash with Real Madrid on Wednesday will be an epic encounter between the likes of superstar pair Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, with Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema in supporting roles. However, a lesser heralded star, but one nonetheless familiar to supporters of Los Merengues, could play a decisive role for the French capital outfit at Santiago Bernabeu: Angel Di Maria.
The Argentina international was part of the Real side that won the 2013-14 edition -- La Decima -- and he played an influential role towards the end of that memorable continental run before moving on to Manchester United.
Di Maria, 29, looked to be on his way out at Parc des Princes as recently as a few months ago, when last summer's arrivals of Neymar and Mbappe meant that there was no longer a clear role for El Fideo in Unai Emery's starting XI. He pouted while he sat on a ball as his fellow substitutes warmed up around him at Monaco's Stade Louis II and looked for all the world like a player who would not be with the club come the end of January.
However, after a sensational start to 2018, Di Maria is still in Paris and is one of the most in-form players in Europe, with nine goals and seven assists from nine appearances across all domestic competitions and has been indispensable.
"Here at PSG, the staff ensure that all of the players feel important," the South American told the Ligue 1 leaders' official website ahead of the Real meeting. "But when a player plays less, he can lose a bit of confidence.
"I struggled to put performances together at the start of the season as I had to get my self-belief back. After the winter break, I have started several games, and I was fortunate enough to shine again and wanted to make the most of my opportunities.
"Of course the support of my teammates has also helped me immensely."
Although one of those teammates, Mbappe, has deprived Di Maria of a regular starting role for most of the season, the France international now recognises that it would be harsh on the man from Rosario to go back to the role of substitute while still in excellent form.
"Yes, [Di Maria deserves to start]," Mbappe said after Di Maria helped himself to a hat trick in the 4-1 Coupe de France thrashing of Sochaux last week. "I am not the coach, but he is doing great things right now and everybody is very happy about that."
The reality, though, is that Di Maria may well find himself on the sidelines when he returns to the Bernabeu in midweek because Emery is facing a few major selection conundrums -- albeit mostly in a good sense. As well as choosing from Adrien Rabiot, Giovani Lo Celso and Lassana Diarra to fill Thiago Motta's deep-lying midfield role, the Spaniard also must pick between the attack-minded Layvin Kurzawa and the more balanced Yuri Berchiche at left-back.
Speaking pre-match, Emery revealed that he does not consider Rabiot a serious option with Lo Celso and Diarra available, so it is a straight shoot-out between the latter pair. "We will tell the players who will be starting on the day of the match," Emery told journalists. "That gives them motivation on the pitch.
"The two options in defensive midfield are Giovani and Lassana and they are both ready. Adrien has played further forward, and we want him to continue there."
There is little doubt, though, that Emery's biggest headache will come in having to leave out one of Di Maria, Mbappe or Cavani, or alternatively find a way to combine the three with Neymar in a system that the quartet can already function effectively in. It is an unenviable position for the Basque tactician to find himself in because there are strong advantages and disadvantages to each of those three players starting in Madrid and the same goes for Emery's positional posers in defensive midfield and at full-back, too.
First of all, the obvious is that Di Maria has been unplayable lately and is in some of the best form of his PSG career, but he has also been relied on very heavily since the start of 2018. Les Parisiens' No. 11 has only been quiet on a couple of occasions in the past month or so and is absolutely brimming with confidence.
If 100 percent physically, is there really any argument that he should not start? Perhaps not but then the same must be asked of Cavani and Mbappe.
The Uruguay international would have been an undisputed starter in Madrid but a sudden hip injury just before Saturday's 1-0 win away at Toulouse has now made him a question mark coming into the match. If Cavani is less than 100 percent fit, his speed and movement potentially compromised, is it wise to risk him from the start with somebody as fast and technical as Di Maria raring to go?
A front three of Neymar, Mbappe and Di Maria might miss the sure finishing of Cavani but would be a nightmare for Zinedine Zidane's hosts to try to handle on the counter-attack. Of course, if you lose Cavani, you lose more than just goals -- it is also the passion, commitment and leadership that he brings, all of which are perfect for a big European night like this.
However, the former Benfica man also showed on his first return to the Spanish capital with PSG that he has an appetite for that sort of homecoming.
If El Matador is good to go, it is Mbappe who is next in line for scrutiny, and considering his difficult start to 2018 -- epitomised by a collision with Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes last month and a first career red card at Rennes in the Coupe de la Ligue -- it is a fair question to ask this close to such an important date.
As a trio, Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar -- MCN -- have wreaked havoc across every stage so far this campaign but their honeymoon period appears to be over and for varying reasons, they have not played together that much lately.
The answer, for Emery, is not obvious.
Add in the fact that Di Maria could play in a midfield three alongside Rabiot and Marco Verratti, but has not been tried there by the former Sevilla boss (who experimented with Julian Draxler there instead), despite how well he did there towards the end of his time with Real, and Emery's dilemma becomes clearer.
As Di Maria admits, Real against PSG over two legs could be decided by Neymar and Ronaldo as they go head to head.
"They are quite similar players," the Argentinian said. "They are both quick, very strong one on one, they play quickly and put a lot of intensity into their games.
"Ney is smaller, and that is perhaps his advantage, but they are both capable of turning games."
Come Wednesday, though, the man capable of influencing this first leg heavily and possibly winning it over both, Di Maria, is not even certain to be on the pitch for the Champions League anthem at the Bernabeu.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.