Prior to Wednesday evening, Angel Di Maria’s last appearance on English soil was over after 22 minutes.
The £59.7 million (Dh311.4m) man was substituted after picking up a hamstring injury a quarter of the way through Manchester United’s final game of the 2014/15 Premier League campaign at Hull City, his early withdrawal marking the end of a desperately disappointing single-season stint at Old Trafford.
Di Maria, 28, had long since asserted himself on proceedings by the same stage of Paris Saint-Germain’s clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, the Argentine playing a pivotal role as his side took control in the early stages.
He continued to impress for the remainder of the match as the Ligue 1 leaders booked their place in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Champions League with a 2-1 victory in the second leg of their last 16 tie with Guus Hiddink’s side.
After three quarter-final exits in three successive seasons, the minimum requirement at PSG is to reach the final four of Europe’s foremost continental club competition for the first time since Qatar Sports Investments’ takeover in 2011.
Angel di Maria: The Man United cast-off who might be PSG's difference in Europe
Di Maria was acquired from United for £44m last summer with that ambition in mind. PSG, who were beaten to his signature by United 12 months previously, knew the Argentina international was the type of player who could take them to the next level, with Di Maria arguably Real Madrid’s standout performer when they claimed the trophy for the tenth time in their history in 2013/14.
It was indeed the fleet-footed Madrid rather than the sluggish United version that was on show at Stamford Bridge. Di Maria frequently cut a frustrated figure in the Premier League, his instinctive, direct and off-the-cuff style of play clearly at odds with Van Gaal’s preference for patience and possession, structure and solidity.
PSG coach Laurent Blanc has afforded him a greater degree of freedom this season, a decision that has paid off immensely. Nominally playing on the right flank in the first period, Di Maria regularly dropped into midfield to pick up the ball and set the tempo for the visitors’ attacking game, with Chelsea leftback Kenedy and central midfielders Cesc Fabregas and John Obi Mikel struggling to get a handle on his evasive movement.
The area he occupied most was the ‘half-space’ — the pocket between the wing and the centre of the park. It was from that area that Di Maria supplied the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic that led to Adrien Rabiot’s opener, while a number of other passes from the same part of the pitch almost put PSG in behind Chelsea’s backline.
After the interval he switched to the left-hand side, from where his pinpoint cross set up Ibrahimovic’s tie-deciding strike. Di Maria’s range of passing was essential all night, so too his ability to drive forward at speed with the ball at his feet.
“He is a very intelligent player in terms of his movement,” Blanc said of PSG’s No 11 in his post-match press conference. “He can change the pace of a game because he is technically gifted and has excellent vision.
“I often say in tight matches like these that you have to win the midfield battle and pose a tactical problem to the opposition in midfield. Di Maria did that very well tonight. He gave them a problem from start to finish — they never knew where he was.”
Whether PSG can qualify for the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 1995 depends a great deal on the draw for the next round, but they will certainly fancy their chances of advancing further after easing past Chelsea over two legs.
Their squad already contained plenty of talent, but Di Maria has given the French champions an extra sprinkling of stardust that could help them take the next step in Europe.
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