Di Maria crucial to Argentina's hopes
With training having started in earnest at the Argentine FA national team training complex in Ezeiza, just outside southern Buenos Aires, one man is still absent from proceedings. There's no controversy, though -- Angel Di Maria has earned a few days of rest. Ensuring that he gets them could prove key to Argentina's World Cup campaign.
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Di Maria was always a highly talented player -- it was clear, watching him as a 17-year-old for Rosario Central, that he was going places in the game despite being entirely one-footed. For a few seasons after he moved to Europe, though, there were worries that that initial promise wasn't going to be realised. That right foot just never got any better, and whilst he enjoyed club success, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that on an individual level he wasn't hitting quite the heights he might do.
After arriving at Real Madrid from Benfica, though, that started to change. He arrived just a month after Jose Mourinho was appointed Madrid manager. Mourinho, of course, has his fans and his detractors, but one thing that is inarguable is that he has a great record of improving individual players for the good of the team. It doesn't always work, but when they're happy to put the work in, the results can be amazing.
And Di María was more than happy to put the work in. He's still relentlessly one-footed (after wrapping his left foot behind his standing right one to set up Cristiano Ronaldo for a Champions League goal against Copenhagen last October, he admitted, 'I feel more comfortable with a rabona than I do trying to kick it with my right foot'), but his dedication to every other aspect of his game has worked wonders. Starting from an already high base, he's probably Argentina's most improved player since the last World Cup.
He's been aided by an extraordinary physique, and that's the characteristic which cements his place as key to Argentina's hopes. For Argentina, Di María is likely to play a very similar role to the one he's played for Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid side this season. Starting on the left of a three man midfield (with Javier Mascherano and, assuming full fitness, Fernando Gago as his probable partners), Di María will be charged with opening up play down the left flank and joining the attack when his side get the ball.
To that end, his ability to run and run, and then keep running, will be hugely important. During national team matches, Argentina's Twitter users frequently refer to him as having a third lung; during the side's 1-1 draw away to Bolivia, Di Maria covered an astonishing amount of ground at the altitude of La Paz, and come the end of the match he was one of the only Argentines who didn't look dead on his feet.
With Lionel Messi starting out on the right of Argentina's front three (Gonzalo Higuain will be the centre forward reference point, and Sergio Aguero slightly tucked in on the left), and likely to be double or triple-marked in all their matches, space will open in other areas -- precisely the areas Di Maria will be given the responsibility of attacking.
"Messi's the captain, the one who conducts the orchestra. Messi leads and the rest of us follow along behind," Di María told Argentine station Radio La Red on Tuesday, before beginning a few days of rest back in his home town of Rosario. He knows, though, that he'll be arguably as important to the side himself. Recent performances suggest he's got the strength to shoulder the burden of responsibility.