Jul 5, 2014, 9:01 PM EDT
One of Argentina’s most important players will miss the final two games of the World Cup, but since his name isn’t Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, or Sergio Agüero, his contributions may be overlooked. Yet anybody who watched the UEFA Champions League final (or, any Real Madrid game over the last four years) knows the value of Ángel di María.
Within a talented Argentina team that often lacks flexibility, the winger/forward/midfielder’s presence may be even more valuable. His combination of talent, versatility, and relentless work makes Di María a player that would fit into any team in the world.
Unfortunately for the Albiceleste, over the final two rounds of this year’s World Cup, that team won’t be theirs. Having suffered a right thigh tear today against Belgium, the 26-year-old is expected to be ruled out of the semifinals and, if Argentina defeats the Netherlands, Brazil 2014’s final. An official announcement is expected on Sunday.
Di María suffered the tear when mustering a shot, which was blocked by Vincent Kompany, with his team leading 1-0 in Brasilia. He received treatment on the pitch and attempted to play on, but crumpled back to the turf moments later before hobbling away in tears … The Argentina manager, Alejandro Sabella, initially expressed hopes the injury would not prove too serious … However, the severity of the tear became clearer over the course of evening with media in Argentina reporting the Real Madrid player, who had scored the team’s late winner against Switzerland in the round of 16, was now resigned to missing the remainder of the finals.
With Argentina showing so many different looks this World Cup, it’s difficult to know how, exactly, this will affect Sabella’s team. Maybe that can turn into an advantage against the Dutch, who have tailored their set up for each opponent.
Without di María, Sabella could elect to put Agüero back in the team, switching back to 4-3-3 that worked before the tournament. But if di María’s not there to severe as the midfield’s linking element, Messi may be drawn further from goal. Perhaps Enzo Pérez could be that guy, but the Albiceleste may not have another central midfielder who can fill that role.
With that in mind, it makes more sense than ever to keep Agüero on the bench and simply replace di María with somebody who can play wider. That replacement could be Pérez, who came on against Belgium, or it could be veteran right-winger Maxi Rodríguez, if Sabella wants to tweak his team’s shape. Ricardo Álvarez and Rodrigo Palacio are other possibilities, but with the width the Netherlands has utilized through their wing backs, relying on either of those Inter Milan attackers to keep up is more hopefully than prudent.
Then again, Argentina could go back to the five-defender setup -the one they used in their tournament’s opening match. Unfortunately, that leaves Sabella with the same questions he’d have with a 4-3-3: How does Argentina play an effective three-man midfield without Di María?
At some point over the next three days, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal will have to make an educated guess about how Argentina will play and set up his team accordingly, but given di María’s importance, a guess will be as good as it gets. Even van Gaal will some uncertainty as to how Argentina replaces Ángel Di María.
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