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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Angel di Maria can remind PSG what they have and Real Madrid what they are missing

Argentine winger and Edinson Cavani both endured a birthday to forget when the teams first clashed on February 14. With Neymar sidelined, both will take great satisfaction in conquering Real Madrid in their Uefa Champions League last-16 second leg

Angel Di Maria celebrates his goal against Troyes during the French Ligue 1 match. The Argentine has scored 13 times in 14 starts in 2018 for PSG. Franck Fife  / AFP
Angel Di Maria celebrates his goal against Troyes during the French Ligue 1 match. The Argentine has scored 13 times in 14 starts in 2018 for PSG. Franck Fife / AFP

For neither of the two birthday boys was February 14 much of a celebration. Edinson Cavani, who turned 31 that day, endured a match without scoring, which counts as unusual for him, and then, stony-faced, found himself substituted on the hour. Angel Di Maria, who reached 30 that day, spent the entire evening on the bench at a venue where he once thrived.

It was all too much for Jorgelina Cardoso, Di Maria’s wife. After watching her husband watch his Paris Saint-Germain lose 3-1 in the first leg of their Uefa Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid, she aired her thoughts on social media. “Your effort + your extra work + your goals + your assists + your best form = THE BENCH,” read her message. “But then we women don’t understand anything about football.”

What almost everybody around PSG understands, with Madrid in the French capital for Tuesday’s return match is that Di Maria and Cavani nurse a special desire to make an impact on a tie that slipped from their grasp in the later stages of the first 90 minutes but can be seized back if PSG play as they tend to at home.

The absence of the club’s megastar, Neymar, who last week had surgery on a fractured metatarsal bone, applies a particular focus on Cavani, the club’s leading scorer and sometimes contester of the right to take penalties with Neymar, and on Di Maria. His wife is right that his work-rate, his goals and his assists are a compelling argument for his inclusion in the starting XI to take on his former club.

He is in superb form. Di Maria’s opening goal in the 2-0 Ligue 1 win at Troyes on Saturday was his 13th in 14 starts in 2018 for PSG. He has set up another nine goals for colleagues in that period. “Tuesday will be a special moment for Angel,” said Unai Emery at the weekend. “I expect the best from him, and with his experience, his confidence and his desire, he will be very competitive.”

The confidence is key. Emery enjoyed the manner in which Di Maria took on Troyes goalkeeper Erwin Zelazny on Saturday in a duel, and coolly chipped him for his goal. A Di Maria who dares to take on and tease opponents is the sort PSG want, especially without Neymar in the side.

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That was the sort of Di Maria Madrid appreciated most over the course of four years from 2010, when he moved to the Bernabeu from Benfica. As a Madrid footballer, he had his ups and downs and became used to compromising his ideal position to make space for superstar arrivals at the club. But he also grew as a player. He was named man of the match when Real Mdrid won the 2014 Champions League final, having galvanised a comeback from 1-0 down to Atletico Madrid, operating from a position defined for him that season on the left of a midfield three. As it turned out, it would be his last competitive game for Real. He departed, sold to Manchester United for then record outgoing British transfer fee of €75 million (Dh339m), largely in order that Madrid could bring in James Rodriguez.

In England, Di Maria’s confidence sagged. The stay at United lasted 12 months, about nine months too long as far as the player was concerned. His first two years at PSG then recovered the valued teammate with the remarkable left foot who has won over 90 Argentina caps, the pencil-thin whippet who, at Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema thanked again and again for his precise passes. They owe him 42 goals between them from that era, all Angel-assisted goals.

Cavani has been the main beneficiary of that service at PSG: 17 of his goals have come direct from Di Maria’s delivery. More have been engineered by the Argentine’s ability to pull a defence out of shape, and make space.

Cavani and Di Maria had a dinner together in Paris six days after the trip to Madrid to celebrate, belatedly, their shared birthday. The prospect of a comeback against Real was discussed, apparently, and the resolve of PSG players to erode the two-goal margin is firm.

Emery dutifully talks about PSG raising their game “for Neymar”. There are plenty in his squad who would gain a great deal of satisfaction from showing that PSG can conquer the best without the Brazilian.