Every superhero needs a sidekick and as Lionel Messi continues to drag Argentina through the World Cup, Angel Di Maria is happy to remain in the shadows.
In any other side – except maybe Portugal or Brazil – Di Maria would be the star but in La Albiceleste’s all-star assembly of attacking talent, he is there to compliment, not crowd, Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.
It is a role he has grown accustomed to at Real Madrid. Signed from Benfica post-South Africa 2010 for a relatively modest €25 million (Dh125.7m), in terms of profile Di Maria is well below Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and even Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas.
He has had to apply the same selfless attitude to his country. With Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago holding midfielders in the purest sense, Di Maria – who has reinvented himself from a winger – is the energy in midfield.
But he does not see the requirement as a hardship, more so he feels privileged to be playing alongside a footballer he regards as the greatest on the planet.
“Messi is the best in the world – there is no question about that. The problem is that when Argentina doesn’t play well and the same is true of Barcelona – the press think it is easy to blame Messi,” he tells Sport360°. “We have seen time and time again that he wins games on his own when the team is not performing – but the media expect him to always be the hero.
“When I am an old man I will tell my grandchildren bedtime stories about when I won the Champions League, hopefully when I won the World Cup, but most of all I will tell them that their grandfather used to play with Lionel Messi.”
Outside of Messi’s typically-impressive numbers, Di Maria leads the way for Argentina in terms of average chances created (2.7), shots per game (3.0), average crosses (3.3) and is second only to Marcos Rojo regarding distance covered in possession (13km).
While Argentina need Messi somewhere near his best to fully function, the argument could also be true of Di Maria, as without his dynamism in the middle of the park, Alejandro Sabella’s side can look fractured and a little flat. The 26-year-old, however, insists this Argentina unit is far more than the Messi-Di Maria axis.
“We are playing well and it is a pleasure to supply him with goals because he makes such intelligent runs – but we are full of quality. It is true that we do have a great relationship on and off the field – but Argentina is about so much more than us,” he adds.
Emerging from a manageable group containing Iran, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Nigeria, Argentina face the greatest test of their tournament so far in Switzerland.
Managed by Ottmar Hitzfeld, given the likely nature of the two sides meeting since the Swiss lost 5-2 to France on June 20, you have to assume the veteran tactician’s plan to stop Messi has been formulated since then.
Before the World Cup, Brazil defender Thiago Silva joked that the only way to stop Messi was with a gun. Di Maria is just pleased he doesn’t have to come up with his own way of stifling the forward.
“I laughed when I heard Thiago Silva say that you can only stop Messi with a gun – but the way he is playing at the moment I am not even sure you could stop him with a gun.
“He is playing with such confidence that it gives the rest of the team confidence to know that our captain and best player in the world is playing so well.”
But while Argentina’s attacking threats are obvious, there remain concerns that defensively they are vulnerable. Both Bosnia and Iran gave them a real fright, while Nigeria went as far as scoring twice. Winger Ahmed Musa scoring one on the break and then powering through the heart of the def-ence to score a second.
Although not maybe at the level of Argentina, the Swiss have some potent offensive forces of their own in Xherdan Shaqiri – scorer of the World Cup’s only hat-trick, Admir Mehmedi and Granit Xhaka. While it will be a test for how the Swiss deal with Messi, there will also be considerable interest in how the Argentine backline will fare.
“This has not been the World Cup for defenders. There have been a lot of goals – and that is great for the fans. I am not concerned about our defence at all – we have excellent defenders,” Di Maria says. “Yes we have to stop conceding so many goals – but it is the job of the whole team to make sure that happens not just the defenders.”
He also disputes the notion that Argentina have been handed one of the more favourable draws of the last 16.
“I don’t think the game against Switzerland is easy at all. We are now down to the last 16 teams – there is no such thing as an easy game left,” he adds.
“Yes we understand we are favourites – but this has been the World Cup of shocks – so we will be showing them full respect.
“The pressure is always on us – because with the quality we have, we are expected to win the World Cup – and it can help Switzerland because the pressure is off them.”
But the primary goal is never far from Di Maria’s mind. With Messi capable of further greatness, a relatively comfortable run to the semi-finals and tens of thousands of fans packing into the stadiums to roar them to glory, this could be Argentina’s time.
Successive failures from 1994 onwards, where they have never gone further than the quarter-finals, have swelled expectancy to almost bursting point, but at the same time has fuelled a desire and determination to succeed. With such a talented squad, there is a responsibilty for them to return to Buenos Aires with a third World Cup title.
Di Maria finishes: “This group is very special – and the aim before the tournament started was to win the World Cup – and of course that is still very much our ambition. I know that nobody will be satisfied with anything less than coming home with the World Cup.”
2008 Olympic Gold
After starring at the Under-20 World Cup in Canada – where he scored three goals – Di Maria was called up for the Beijing Olympics and scored the winner as Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0 in the final.
2010 First World Cup
Given the No7 shirt in South Africa, the 22-year-old was the third-youngest member of Diego Maradona’s squad. He started four of five matches as La Albiceleste crashed out in the quarter-finals.
2011 Copa America failure
Di Maria wasn’t an automatic starter under Sergio Batista but fought his way into the team to score in their final group tie against Costa Rica before the pre-tournament favourites lost on penalties to Uruguay.