Cristiano Ronaldo is the runaway favourite to win FIFA’s Ballon d’Or award this year – and few would dispute his claim.
However, we’d argue that one of United’s newest stars might be in with an outside chance of spoiling the ex-Manchester favourite’s party.
All things considered, Angel Di Maria has had an outstanding 2014. The accolades he’s accumulated this year speak for themselves: one Copa Del Rey, one Champions League and a World Cup runners-up medal have all been acquired by the Argentine over the last 12 months. But factor in Di Maria’s actual level of influence in both Real Madrid’s and Argentina’s respective successes and you begin to understand just how good the guy has been.
When Carlo Ancelotti made the bold choice to switch Madrid to a 4-3-3 during the course of last season, it was no coincidence that he found Di Maria undroppable.
Forced out of the team by the sheer numbers behind Gareth Bale’s transfer fee, Di Maria was left with a choice; adapt, or be dropped. He chose the former, and pushed his way back into the La Decima winning side with aplomb. It’s odd to think that 12 months ago the Argentine was little more than a speedy, orthodox wide player – now, Di Maria is arguably the world’s best playmaking midfielder. He has masterfully combined his technicality, calculating mind and guile with unstoppable athleticism and speed. His unexpected transformation has seen him become a unique attacker, reminiscent of a younger Iniesta; he’s a marvel.
His role in Real Madrid winning the domestic and European double cannot be overestimated. Although Cristiano (as ever) provided the goals, it was Di Maria’s pace and inventiveness that was so often the catalyst for Madrid’s trademark lightning counter-attacks.
He is unpredictable – weaving between defenders before pulling off almost unthinkable touches and tricks – and he used this to great effect during both cup runs, bursting into life at the most opportune moments and gliding past opposition challenges with an almost inhuman agility.
The last thing you want to see when you’re exhausted and clutching desperately onto a one goal lead is Angel Di Maria at full pace – just ask Atletico Madrid’s Tiago Mendes or Gabi.
In fact, you need look no further than Di Maria’s UEFA Man of the Match award for the Champions League final to understand his importance in that game.
Of course, his brilliance at club level wasn’t the only factor in his big-money move to Manchester, their welcome offer and subsequent Ballon D’or nomination.
He played a huge role in orchestrating Argentina’s run to the World Cup final – had he been fit for the game itself, Germany may not have been celebrating quite so fervently in Berlin the week after. Di Maria is so often decisive when it matters most. He scored the winner late on against Switzerland to secure Argentina’s place in the quarter-finals, despite widespread opinion that he’d played badly.
It’s a cliche but that’s the mark of a confident, persistent and undeniably excellent player.
So, when the golden envelope is opened in January and the name of Cristiano Ronaldo is (most likely) read out as the Ballon d’Or winner, spare a thought for Manchester United’s future, not their past; because had he not been playing in the era of two footballing demi-gods, Angel Di Maria could quite possibly have won the game’s biggest accolade this year.