Even when Argentina’s Round-of-16 tie with Switzerland went into extra-time, Angel Di Maria kept on running and running, right till the end. That came with Nati keeper Diego Benaglio coming up in desperation for a corner and Di Maria scampering towards the halfway line when the ball was cleared to him. The tireless wide man took one look at the vacant Swiss goal and tried his luck from the middle of the pitch, looking on in disappointment as the ball went just wide.
The remarkable thing about that final effort on goal was that it was Di Maria’s 12th of the game and only the second that was not on target. Ultimately, the miss did not matter, for just a few moments earlier the insatiable Di Maria had scored the goal that gave La Albiceleste victory in yet another dramatic encounter and took them into the quarter-finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
One man to appreciate his lung-busting efforts at the end of an energy-sapping afternoon was Javier Mascherano, who was understandably relieved to be on the same side as the No7 and not facing him, as is usually the case during the Spanish league season.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Mascherano said: “He’s a fantastic player and he covers every blade of grass. He’s fantastic not just because of his fitness, but for his technique too. Playing against him is tough, really tough. At least we’re on the same side right now.”
At the heart of the action
Di Maria is not exactly used to being the main man. Back in Spain the Real Madrid man regularly plays second fiddle to FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu, and when he appears on international duty he has the job of escorting one Lionel Messi.
“We’re very lucky to be playing with Leo,” the Merengue flyer told FIFA in the days leading up to the last-16 tie with the Swiss. “Just like the players who allowed (Diego) Maradona to play his best football, so we have to do the same today with Messi.”
Blessed with sufficient talent to be a leader himself, the unassuming Di Maria has no problem at all in rolling his sleeves up and playing a supporting role for Messi, who was a constant threat to the Swiss rearguard, continually trying to make things happen.
Whenever Messi ran at the Swiss defence, it was all the men in red could do to keep up with him. It was on one of those driving runs that he finally found an opening. Collecting the ball in midfield, the No10 surged forward, swerved past one of his many markers and laid the ball off to the unmarked Di Maria.
The wing man did not waste the hard-earned chance, placing a precise low shot past Benaglio and into the far corner of the Switzerland net. With just two minutes of extra-time remaining, Argentina were all but through, thanks not just to Messi but to their other ace.
“They make the difference, don’t they?” commented a relieved Mascherano. “We always say that they can settle a game in a single move, and we’re lucky to have them by our side. Let’s hope the team can keep supporting them and that they can keep this form up and keep winning games for us.”
Praise like that is an indication of the esteem in which Di Maria is held by his Albiceleste team-mates, esteem that puts him at the same level, in their eyes, as Messi.
Praise from all quarters
Di Maria’s performance even drew plaudits from the dejected Swiss, among them their young striker Josip Drmic, who spoke of the game’s only scorer in effusive terms.
“He was sensational today. I’m a big of a fan of his,” Drmic told FIFA.com after the game. “I love the way he plays but what amazes me most about him is how he can go on those sprints even after 120 minutes of football. It’s incredible, and today he showed just how good he is.”
As Mascherano pointed out, it is not just a question of using those tireless legs to run like the wind – there is also the need to put them to good use when on the ball, which is exactly what Di Maria did to clinch the game.
“I really wanted to score,” said the matchwinner at the side of the pitch, somewhat stating the obvious. “Leo had the ball at his feet and he’s the one who decides who to give it to.”
Another player accustomed to facing Di Maria on a regular basis in La Liga, Messi knew his dashing team-mate would put the late chance away. Before taking his leave, Mascherano reiterated what he feels about wearing the same jersey as Argentina’s man of the hour: “I can tell you, it’s a lot nicer having him on our side.”