This was the Angel Di Maria final — then he came off and Argentina very nearly fell apart

In one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds, Angel Di Maria became the best player in the world.

It was the same day that 35-year-old Lionel Messi would kiss the World Cup trophy and take his place as the greatest footballer of all time, and his historic performance would deserve it. Player of the tournament Kylian Mbappe scored three goals after 80 minutes to leave no doubt as to who would take over in Messi’s departure.

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But the big names were second best in the first hour of the match. It was Argentina’s aging winger, not Messi, who scored the first penalty and the second to give his team a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. The game went through him like a high-voltage current. France could not get rid of this skinny, slippery electric eel.

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It was definitely Angel Di Maria’s finale.

Then he left.

Maybe it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Of all Di Maria’s incredible gifts, the greatest seems to be underappreciated.

To be fair, it’s hard to catch. His smoldering coal eyes, razor-sharp cheekbones and elfin ears jutting out of his incredibly long face make him look like a study of El Greco’s Franz Kafka, and his performance is both whimsical and whimsical, leading you to hope. He’s kind of a weird star because he’s never really been a star.

(Photo: Catherine Iville/Getty Images)

First, it has no place. Or he has three. Over the past 15 years, Di Maria has played both on the wing and in midfield for some of the world’s best teams, seemingly a natural wherever his team needs him.

At the start of this World Cup, just as in Argentina’s qualifying campaign, Di Maria was lined up to the right of Messi. The wider threat kept the defense honest. If you try to center Messi in the right half space, Di Maria will slide in behind you and beat you on the wing. Watch as Di Maria and Messi swing freely between the lines.

It has been working for them for the past year. With Di Maria playing on the right wing, he pulled Brazil’s backline behind and scored the only goal in last year’s Copa América final to win Argentina the first international trophy of Messi’s career.

But playing on the right at this World Cup felt like a waste of Di Maria’s talents.

A strong left-footer, Messi likes to dribble from right to left and look for diagonals down the opposite wing.

When left midfielder Giovani Lo Celso was fit, he was able to run onto the ball while Di Maria remained on the right. But when Lo Celso tore his hamstring just weeks before the tournament, Lionel Scaloni never replaced him. Argentina played without a left winger, even when Messi used him and Di Maria was there.

In the World Cup final against France, that finally changed. Argentina, who have been sleepless for most of the tournament with Di Maria moving to the left wing, could do better with a bit more of a friend.

They were invulnerable for more than an hour.

It was immediately apparent what the team was missing. When Messi dribbled to his left in search of a pass in the 12th minute, he didn’t have to wait to lift the loose left wing. Di Maria was already high and wide to take a diagonal behind the defence.

Di Maria knew exactly what to do next. He has played with Messi since 2008 (the year he ran onto Messi’s pass to score the goal that won Argentina the Olympic gold medal).

Without thinking, he settled the ball on his left foot, waited for Messi’s favorite late run, then slotted the pass for the penalty spot. Only Aurelien Tchuameni’s strike kept him from becoming Messi’s signature.

Two minutes later, when Di Maria’s dribble drew the French half to his wing, Messi waited calmly, waving the ball in the middle of the pitch, while Di Maria rounded Adrien Rabiot and curled a pass between two defenders. loading.

Again, Di Maria knew instinctively what was coming next, so he turned and ran into the box, and if Messi hadn’t miscued the return pass, he could have found the back of the net.

Soon after, Argentina relied on Di Maria and threw almost everything at the left wing.

At one point, Messi stepped out of midfield and kicked the ball in the general direction of Di Maria with his forgotten right foot. Once again, he took advantage of his right and flicked a chest ball back over his shoulder to try and put Di Maria behind. (Ok fine, that’s it As reliable as Messi.)

The ‘where Di Maria is somewhere’ tactic helped Julián Álvarez score Argentina’s first goal.

… and with a little more planning, their second…

But it’s not just Di Maria’s brilliance on the ball that makes him so important. Playing a true left winger transformed the team and allowed Alexis McAllister to shine between the lines as a left attacking midfielder.

When he wasn’t dribbling around Jules Kunde, Di Maria cut through the right-back’s passing lanes. That freed up Mc Allister behind him to mark Antoine Griezmann, whose midfield role has been key to France’s success all tournament.

Without these two players, France had a clean sheet from Jacques Tati. They crawled through the clock without firing a single shot, the second-worst start of any team at the World Cup (only Costa Rica, who went completely dry in a 7-0 thrashing of Spain, had a dry spell).

But just when Argentina looked like they were heading for the trophy, Scaloni made a near-fatal error.

Di Maria left the field at 1 hour 3 minutes 52 seconds of the match.

The next hour was a completely different game.

On paper, it looked like a smart move to manage the game so that the tired 34-year-old left-back Marcos Acuna could anchor the left midfield, but it left Argentina in disarray.

Take the sequence leading up to France’s first goal. McAllister tackled his opponent from his back through midfield. Fifteen minutes earlier, he might have looked for a pass to Di Maria on the wing, but Acuna was hanging behind the ball on the halfway line. There was no passage and no way forward.

Lacking a good possession structure on the left, Argentina are instead confined to the right touchline. France won the ball from that side, broke quickly and scored a goal.

Less than two minutes later, Messi faced the same problem. He dribbled to the left under intense pressure and looked to clear the ball up the wing. This time, Acuna took the lead, but was too narrow, not offering Messi a confident passing option. As Di Maria missed the ball, Messi took possession and France scored again to send the game into extra time.

It wasn’t just a few awkward moments. The switch to a flat 4-4-2 changed the way Argentina possessed possession – or more often than not it didn’t work at all. Messi’s favorite diagonals have completely dried up.

Messi cuts inside and looks down the left wing when he sees Acuna running to catch up with the play. By the time he did, it was usually too late.

What was supposed to be a defensive replacement backfired. Argentina suddenly became uncomfortable on the ball, and France found their rhythm and began to take the lead. A completely one-sided game has come to naught.

As for Di Maria, he is trying to get his team out of the side. When Messi scored in extra time, Di Maria ran off the bench to celebrate in his training clothes.

(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

As Mbappe equalized again and sent the game to penalties, the camera showed Di Maria crying into his shirt.

This is not the first time he had to watch the World Cup from the sidelines. In 2014, he broke a muscle in the quarter-finals and could not finish the tournament in Argentina. “I just want to win the World Cup,” he pleaded with his coaches at the time, insisting that painkillers would see him through the finals. “If you call me, I’ll play till I break.”

Would he do the same now at 34 years old? Scaloni must have let him. But this time, thanks to Don Diego and La Tota, Argentina didn’t need him.

Di Maria’s time of one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds to win the World Cup was the best on the pitch and Messi’s lifetime best.

(Top photo: Katherine Iville/Getty Images)


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