Angel di Maria will attempt to exorcise some personal ghosts when he returns to Manchester for Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League quarter-final second leg at Manchester City today.
The 28-year-old Argentina international endured a miserable time in the city with Manchester United last season, with a traumatic burglary expediting his departure at the end of the campaign.
But whereas his position was constantly chopped and changed by United manager Louis van Gaal, he has benefited from being consistently selected on the wing at PSG, which has yielded a stirring return to form. “It’s not nice to say certain things, but it’s more that they didn’t let me settle properly than I couldn’t settle,” Di Maria said of his experience at United. “I started a game in one position, then the next game in another. I scored goals playing in one position, then suddenly the next game I was picked to play in a different position.”
Hailing PSG head coach Laurent Blanc, Di Maria added: “From the beginning he was clear where he wanted to play me and has never changed his mind.
“He gave me total freedom to move where I needed to move. I’m very happy here and it wasn’t the case over there.”
Handed United’s fabled number seven shirt after a club-record £59.7 million ($84.3 million, 74 million euros) transfer from Real Madrid, Di Maria could scarcely have arrived at Old Trafford amid greater fanfare.
But despite a promising start, including a delicious lob at Leicester City, Manchester would not prove a happy home for the man nicknamed ‘Fideo’ (Noodle) on account of his skinny frame.
Van Gaal continually changed his role, even fielding him as a lone striker at one stage, and a succession of injuries prevented him from finding any rhythm.
The nadir arrived in late January last year when a group of burglars armed with scaffolding poles attempted to smash their way into Di Maria’s luxurious home while he, his wife and one-year-old daughter cowered inside.
Di Maria promptly moved his family into a hotel and with Van Gaal admitting to feeling concerned about his star recruit’s state of mind, the Argentine’s form never recovered. Sent off for manhandling the referee in an FA Cup defeat by Arsenal in March, he was unable to win his place in the team back and spent the rest of the season on the bench.
He left United having scored four goals and supplied 10 assists in 32 appearances. With PSG he has scored nine more goals and provided three more assists, despite having only played in six more games.
Aligned on the right flank in an attacking triumvirate completed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, Di Maria has freedom to roam infield and has looked a far happier player in the French capital. “You have to be intelligent to roam around like Angel does,” says Blanc. “In particular, he has that ability to accelerate the tempo and an excellent vision of the game.”
Man of the match in Real’s victory over Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final, Di Maria was signed to give PSG’s first XI an injection of the know-how required to win the competition.
He was decisive in the last-16 victory over Chelsea, delivering assists for Cavani and Ibrahimovic in either leg of a 4-2 aggregate success, but failed to sparkle in last week’s 2-2 draw with City.
Ironically, given his complaints about his treatment at United, the suspension of Blaise Matuidi and injuries to Marco Verratti and Javier Pastore could see him moved into central midfield at the Etihad Stadium. But should he inspire PSG to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time since 1995, the city of Manchester will no longer represent quite such a stain on his CV.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel Di Maria (centre) trains with his team-mates at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester yesterday. (Reuters)