x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Copa America form shows why Manchester United must stick by Angel Di Maria

In this week's column, Diego Forlan looks ahead to the Copa America final and explains why Angel Di Maria will be the key man for Argentina.

Angel Di Maria has been in sparkling form for Argentina at Copa America, contrary to his debut season at Manchester United. Juan Mabromata / AFP
Angel Di Maria has been in sparkling form for Argentina at Copa America, contrary to his debut season at Manchester United. Juan Mabromata / AFP

Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column will be written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

Angel Di Maria was one of many Argentina players who excelled in the Copa America semi-finals on Tuesday, scoring twice in six minutes in a 6-1 rout of Paraguay.

I was stunned by the result. Paraguay are notoriously hard to break down.

Of course, Argentina already knew of Paraguay’s battling qualities after they came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in their opening group game of the tournament.

Because of the time difference, many in Europe and Asia have probably not been watching the tournament on TV, but I have. I have seen how good Argentina are.

Those unable to watch it are missing some exceptional football involving the best players in the world, most of whom play their club football in Europe.

I can’t wait for Saturday’s final between two attack-minded teams — Argentina and the hugely impressive hosts, Chile.

Di Maria looks happy and comfortable playing for his country, unlike when he plays for Manchester United in the Premier League.

I thought he was a superb signing for United because he is one of the best players in the world, but I was slightly surprised, too. Louis van Gaal has never been a fan of South American players, as my good friend Juan Roman Riquelme will tell you from his time under the Dutchman at Barcelona.

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Van Gaal also had a habit of letting his South Americans leave when he was at Bayern Munich, yet United signed both Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, the Colombia striker, on huge money last summer.

Di Maria started out in England like the player we knew he was at Real Madrid in the 2013/14 season. He looked a class above opponents, he ran at defenders, he was a danger around the box and he covered so much ground. Less talented players have felt they were too good to work as hard as him.

But then it all went wrong. He lost his place in the team, he didn’t look happy. It was the same for Falcao, who ended up leaving at the end of his loan deal this summer.

Players are not robots, and if there’s something wrong then their coaches need to find out what the problem is. Di Maria is worth the effort. He offers something different from almost every other player.

Real Madrid really missed his driving runs last season. He is quick, he makes assists and he can also do the hardest thing in football — beat a player one-on-one.

United will regret it if he leaves. He should be given another season to prove himself and United should try to understand him better and trust him.

Great coaches and great players don’t always get on and not every player fits into rigid systems, but Di Maria is worth persisting with.

Chile’s Eduardo Vargas is another player who is outstanding for his country, if not always his club, as fans of Queens Park Rangers, Valencia or Napoli might tell you. Yet he is always good for Chile and has scored 22 goals in 47 games, including both goals against Peru — another superb game — to clinch a place in the Copa America final.

Fortunate Chile

Chile’s attackers, particularly Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, have been excellent in this tournament. Like Argentina, they have arguably their best generation of players. I also like the midfielder Jorge Valdivia, who is set to join Al Wahda after the tournament finishes.

Valdivia is a classic South American No 10 with great timing who plays behind Sanchez and Vargas. I also like their midfielder, Charles Aranguiz, who plays for my old club Internacional in Brazil.

Chile have been fortunate — at least against Uruguay, when Edinson Cavani shouldn’t have been sent off — to play against 10 men in their last two games, but the hosts are worthy finalists.

They have impressed me, but the final is the biggest game in their history. They have never won the Copa America and they are playing Argentina in their capital, Santiago.

They could have sold the game out many times over, yet they also have to give space to fans of Argentina and they are the best in football.

I have played around the world and no fans are as noisy and passionate as Argentina’s. It’s a way of life for them. You will hear a song on the terraces of a ground in Argentina and then hear it six months later in Europe or Asia.

Fans of my old club, Atletico Madrid, were so good in part because Argentines living in Madrid joined their ranks and showed them how to really get behind a team. They will be noisy when they cross the Andes for Saturday’s match and their team will be favourites, too, with good reason.

That win against Paraguay will give them huge confidence for the final, and it is about time this great generation of players won something.

Lionel Messi has won everything for Barcelona and for himself, but nothing with Argentina. He will be desperate for international success and now is their time.

Argentina have better players and have got better as the tournament has gone on. Di Maria, Javier Pastore, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Messi can each change a game in a second. The team is packed with quality, and they seem at their best when playing together for their country.

For Messi, it would cap a wonderful season, yet the same could be said of the man he has got to beat — Barcelona’s Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, their most capped player.

It is a shame most people around the rest of the world won’t be awake to see it.

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