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

For one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds, Angelo Di Maria was the best player in the world.

This was on the same day that 35-year-old Lionel Messi kissed the World Cup trophy to seal his place as the greatest trophy winner of all time, and to deserve his historic honor. Kylian Mbappe, the outstanding player of the tournament, would like to score three goals after 80 minutes and not even a baguette will leave a glimmer of doubt who will succeed when Messi is gone.

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But the first hour match, the big names, the second best. It was Argentina’s aging winger, not Messi, who took the first penalty and scored the second goal, taking his team to a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. The game ran through him like a high-voltage current. France could not escape this thin, slippery electric eel of a man.

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He was without a doubt the final Angelus Di Maria.

and then he left.

Maybe this time it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Among all Di Maria’s prodigious gifts, his greatest seems to be inexcusable.

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It’s tough to put down, it’s beautiful. His beady eyes, evil razors and elfin ears protruding from his impossibly tall face make him look like a study of Franz Kafka’s El Greco, and his acting is as weird and brilliant as you’d expect. The star is odd in that it somehow never has a star at all.

(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

One, it has no place. Or he has three. Over the past 15 years, Di Maria has played on both wings and attacking midfield for some of the best teams in the world and has looked natural wherever his side needed him.

At the start of this World Cup, as he had during Argentina’s qualifying campaign, Di Maria lined up to the right of Messi. A wide threat is guarded against decent defenses. Try to sneak up to the crowd with Messi in the center right and Di Maria at the back and beat yourself up the wing. Try to track Di Maria and Messi will drive freely between the lines.

He had been working for them for the past year or so. Di Maria was playing on the right wing when he ran behind Brazil’s back line and scored the only goal in last year’s Copa America final, winning Argentina the first trophy of Messi’s senior international career.

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

Messi, a very left-footed player, likes to drop from right to left and wait for the killer diameter on the opposite wing.

When left midfield Giovani Lo Celso was fit, he was able to run into those balls while Di Maria remained on the right. But when Lo Celso tore his hamstring a few weeks before the tournament, Lionel Scaloni never really replaced him. Argentina played without a left winger, even when Messi could clearly use one, even when Di Maria was there on the right.

Against France in the World Cup finals, that finally changed. Di Maria moved to the left wing and the Argentine – who had walked through most of the tournament like a sleepless ligo-side, who could look around to have good things compared to a little more yerba – was replaced.

For more hours they were untouched.

It was immediately apparent what the team had been missing. In the 12th minute, when Messi was fading to the left to wait for a pass, he did not have to wait for the left back to wake up the empty wing. Di Maria was already high and wide to get behind the diameter defense.

Di Maria knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He has been playing with Messi since 2008 (the year he ran into Messi to score a goal for Argentina to win the Olympic gold medal).

Without thinking, he placed the ball on his left foot, waited for the pulse of Messi’s arrival, then clipped the pass to the penalty spot. Only a sliding clearance was saved by Aurelien Tchouameni, and Messi’s goal was then signed.

Two minutes later, when Di Maria drew the half of France to his wing, Messi played the ball in the middle of the pitch and calmly waited while Di Maria shmmied around Adrien Rabiot and canceled the pass between two defenders with his outside. Boaz.

Again, Di Maria instinctively knew what was going to happen next, so he rolled around and cut into the box, where the goal would have been had Messi’s return pass not been deflected.

Soon enough, Argentina were throwing almost anything to the left wing, trusting Di Maria to suit him.

At one point Messi drove up the middle and forgot to use his right foot to connect the ball in the general direction of Di Maria, which is about as complimentary as a receiver can give. Another time he tried to use his right to send a ball high into the box flying over the back shoulder, with no look, to put Di Maria in the back. (Okay, okay, that Messi takes it as a confidant).

“Screw it, Di Maria is somewhere there” is how Julian Alvarez assisted Argentina’s first goal.

… and, with a little more detailed planning, the second of them …

But in Di Maria’s group it wasn’t the brilliance that made him so essential. Playing as a left winger however, he reformed the team and allowed Alexis Mac Allister to shine between the lines as a left field attacker.

When he did not complete the circles around Julio Kounde, Di Maria threw himself into the passing lane by cutting off the right back. That Mac Allister completed behind him to mark Antoine Griezmann, whose floating midfield had been a key role in France’s success all tournament.

Without these two players, France were pure Jacques Tati in slapstick football. They crawled past the hour mark without scoring, the second worst start of any team in this World Cup (only Costa Rica, which did not score at all in the 7-0 humiliation of Spain, had a longer dry spell).

But just as Argentina was pushing for the trophy, Scaloni made an almost fatal mistake.

One hour, three minutes and 52 seconds into the match, Di Maria left the pitch.

The next hour was a completely different game.

The tired diving of the 34-year-old left wing as the defender Marcos Acuna could look in the middle of the left bank of the field, as the sweat of the management of the game was moved on the paper, but it threw Argentina into confusion.

Take the sequence before the first goal of France. Mac Allister fought through the middle of the field with his opponent from behind. Fifteen minutes ago, he probably looked for an exit pass to Di Maria on the wing, but Acuna slowed down the ball in midfield. There was no way out or way.

Without a good possession structure on the left, Argentina got caught on the right side instead. France won the ball from that side, broke quickly and scored.

Less than two minutes later, Messi ran into a similar problem. He pressed the ball to the left and looked to shoot the ball down the wing. This time Acuna was upfield, but too narrow, not confident in Messi’s passing option. When Di Maria failed to lob the ball, Messi took possession and France scored again to send the game to extra time.

Not a few uncomfortable moments. The switch to a flat 4-4-2 changed the way Argentina worked in possession — or, more often than not, didn’t work at all. Messi’s favorite diagonals have completely dried up.

When Messi cut inside and looked down the left wing, he could see Acuna running to catch up with the play. By the time, it’s usually too late.

It is supposed to be a defensive replacement wound having the opposite effect. With Argentina suddenly uncomfortable with the ball, France found its rhythm and began to advance. A game that was completely one after another became nothing but.

But Di Maria left wanting his team from the sideline. When Messi scored in extra time, Di Maria was there, evolving from the bench to celebrate with him in the bible of his discipline.

(Photo: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

When Mbappe equalized again and sent the game to penalties, the camera showed Di Maria sobbing on his shirt.

This wasn’t the first time you had to watch from the sidelines when Mundi was on the line. In 2014, he tore a muscle in the quarter-finals and missed the end of the tournament in Argentina. “Now I want to win the World Cup”, then he pleaded with his coaches, demanding that the fans would be him through the last one. “If you call me, I will play until I break.”

There is no doubt that it is still the same 34. Scaloni had wanted to have wanted to have allowed it to have wanted to. But this time, thanks to Don Diego and La Tota, Argentina didn’t need it.

Di Maria’s one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds as the best player on the pitch—Messi’s lifetime achievement—was enough to win the World Cup.

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)


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