Angel Di Maria has already met up with most of Argentina's Copa America squad, and the Manchester United man has wasted no time making his presence felt. While Argentina's talisman was busy winning the treble with Barcelona, Di Maria was instrumental in helping Argentina win a pre-tournament friendly with Bolivia.
Manchester United's record signing captained his country, scored a brace and provided a crossed assist as the Albicelestes won 5-0.
The Copa America could be the perfect stage for Di Maria to restore his lost confidence, and his good performance against Bolivia has started the journey on the right footing.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where Di Maria's trajectory was disturbed. It may have been his injury against Hull City at Old Trafford—he had started that game brightly and was injured taking on players with the ball at his feet. It may have been off-the-field difficulties, such as the break-in at his family home, which understandably caused him distress.
Louis van Gaal gave him a chance to play himself back into form. However, it never quite happened, and from mid-March onward, he made only cameo appearances. His only start following his dismissal against Arsenal was on the final day of the season.
That game saw him once again start brightly against Hull City only to limp off with an injury, this time at the KC Stadium.
Fortunately for Di Maria and Argentina, that injury was not serious.
It may turn out to be fortunate for United if he can use his time with the national team as a springboard to future success with the Red Devils.
The Copa America is a smaller tournament than the World Cup. Should Argentina reach the final or third-place playoff, they will have played six games, one fewer than they did in Brazil. The final is played on 4 July, two weeks before United kick off their pre-season tour of the United States.
The team will presumably excuse Di Maria from at least some of the tour, which runs from 17 July to 29 July. If so, he will have almost a full month to recover from the impact of the summer tournament.
That will be important given that his first season at United came off the back of the World Cup. Indeed, Di Maria's relatively poor form may have another cause, as he suffered three major disappointments in the summer of 2014.
The first was his injury in the quarter-final of the World Cup—an agonising blow given how important he had been to Argentina's progress. The second was seeing his side lose the final—especially significant given it was in the home of their arch-rivals, Brazil.
My cycle at Real Madrid has come to an end. It’s impossible to capture everything I’ve experienced here in a few lines but I hope this letter communicates what I feel at the moment. I had the honour to wear this shirt for four years and I feel nothing but pride for what I went through and achieved with my team-mates.
Unfortunately, I have to go but I want to make clear that this was never my desire.
From everything he has said in recent months, it appears Di Maria, in spite of not wanting to leave Madrid, is determined to bed in at United.
Speaking to the Sun (h/t Sky Sports), he said:
It was a hard season for me. I think it was hard because it was another country and another league, and this league is harder than the Spanish one. So, I couldn't adapt myself as I wanted to.
Now I will play the Copa America and then I will move back to Manchester for next season and do my best there.
That follows him saying in May, per Chris Hatherall of the Mirror:
People told me the first year for a foreigner here is hard. And that’s true.
My challenge is not for one year, but to become part of the history of Manchester United.
The stadium is unique, the fans sensational – it is a fantastic club. My only frustration is that we haven’t offered the fans our best face every week. My dream at United is still to win the Premier League and Champions League.
Being with Argentina, assuming their campaign goes well, could be the tonic he needs to refocus ahead of next season. He is important to Argentina, as was evident in the World Cup, but he does not have the pressure of being the player upon whom expectations are based.
Lionel Messi serves that function, allowing Di Maria to be important without being the man. Di Maria is important enough to get the armband in Messi's absence, but he is not expected to be the best player on the pitch every game.
A deep run in the company of his compatriots is a distinct possibility. Argentina have a reasonably favourable draw in the tournament. Group B consists of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Jamaica.
Of course, in tournament football, there is plenty of room for the unexpected, but safe passage looks likely. There is a huge incentive to finish top of the group given that first place will see them face a third-place finisher from Group A or C.
Were they to finish as runners-up in their group, they would likely have to face Brazil or Colombia, and either team could provide a severe test.
From Di Maria's perspective, a deep run wherein he avoids injury will also offer him what he needs most—time on the pitch. That extended late-season run of limited involvement did not allowed him to rebuild his confidence.
Van Gaal has consistently displayed loyalty to his good performers regardless of reputation, and that meant Di Maria could not unseat less gifted players during United's run-in. His captaincy in the pre-tournament friendly shows just how central he is to Argentina.
It is hard to conceive of him not being selected if available.
He should also have a relatively settled role in the side. One of the difficulties he has had this season is that Van Gaal has used his flexibility to play him in lots of different positions. With Argentina, he should play in midfield most of the time—unless Gerardo Martino uses him wide in a 4-4-2.
Against Bolivia, he started the move for his first goal running with the ball in the centre of the park. It is an area in which Di Maria can be hugely destructive, and playing him there might be the way to get the best out of him.
And if Argentina can get the best out of him, that bodes well for United. While Van Gaal and Di Maria might not seem a natural philosophical fit, the Dutchman needs magic in his team to make his possession-oriented football effective. El Fideo can provide that magic.
The dream of Di Maria at his best in a red shirt has not yet died. A good Copa America campaign could kick-start his United career.
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