PARIS, France, Feb 15 – One month ago, Angel di Maria was an outcast on the Paris Saint-Germain substitutes’ bench, but the striker was reborn in the Champions League demolition of Barcelona.
Two goals in the 4-0 thrashing of Argentina teammate Lionel Messi’s Barca saw birthday boy di Maria hit near perfection in a way that he rarely managed at Manchester United or Real Madrid. Superstar Messi has rarely looked so poor.
Long-suffering PSG players and fans, so often at the receiving end against the Spanish giants, still could not believe the scoreline when they woke up on Wednesday.
“You saw 14 warriors out there, people who wanted to help each other. And when you play like that you have nights like that. It was fabulous,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
Di Maria hit a goal in each half on his 29th birthday and each time gave his traditional celebration, forming a heart with his hands.
But di Maria’s heart has not really been in the PSG game this season. Last month, coach Unai Emery banished the second most expensive import into the French league — 63 million euros paid to United in 2015 — to the substitutes’ bench.
Julian Draxler had arrived from Germany and Lucas was playing well. Being out in the January cold jolted di Maria into action.
– Di Maria’s metamorphosis –
Already against Bordeaux last Friday, he scored one in the 3-0 win that kept PSG in the French title race against Monaco.
PSG back Thomas Meunier said di Maria hated being on the bench and hailed di Maria’s game against Bordeaux as “an Angel who has gone through a metamorphosis.”
Di Maria said he had problems with the tactics brought in by Emery last year.
“Those who know me know that I like to run everywhere, a bit haphazard. He wants every player to take care of his own space and press from that position. It was a problem at the start, but I understood and now I like it,” di Maria told the Spanish sports daily Marca after the Bordeaux game.
Di Maria forced Lucas out of the starting line up for the Barcelona game and received a standing ovation from the Parc des Princes crowd when he left in the 61st minute.
He scored with a curling free kick and a second half shot, both attempts from outside the penalty area. Di Maria now has nine goals for the season and hopes it will set him up for a spectacular finale.
“It was a very special day. It’s impossible to have a better performance and birthday. It was a wonderful display and fully deserved,” he said on BeIn TV after the match.
“We controlled the game for 90 minutes. It was hard to control Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi but we managed it in the end.”
PSG had twice been eliminated from the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona in the previous four seasons. Barca also had a fearsome record in games against sides coached by Emery, losing just one of 23 games before being put to the sword on Wednesday.
PSG’s Qatari owners have set Emery the task of at least reaching the Champions League semi-finals. The Spaniard has now had a lot of pressure taken off his shoulders. But he warned that the players must make sure they finish the job in the second leg in Barcelona and reach the quarter-finals.
“The only feeling I have is that the team produced a massive effort against the great Barca,” Emery said after the triumph.
“I respect Barca and the message was clear in the dressing room: there is still 90 minutes to go and we are going to suffer there in Barcelona.
“So, prudence, satisfaction, concentration on the second match and respect for the great opposing team and its players.”