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El Clásico's Players to Watch: Ángel di María

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In preparation for Sunday's Clásico against FC Barcelona, Managing Madrid takes a look at Ángel di María's transformation from mercurial winger to reliable midfielder. While Lionel Messi might enjoy the title of Rosario's favorite son, Madridistas know of another Rosario native who has no problem performing on soccer's biggest stage: Ángel di María.

If you happened to hang around Managing Madrid circa 2011-2013, odds are you came across a few pointed comments targeting Real Madrid's lovable Fideo (Spanish for "noodle") with accusations of inconsistency, diving, immaturity, and even "headless chicken-ing." In many instances, I even lead the charge against Mourinho's preferred right winger, calling for him to be benched time and time again from my lofty position as armchair blogger (how does sarcasm font work again?). This season, however, Argentina's Ángel di María has forced me to digest quite the slice of humble pie, and you know what? I don't hate it.

When Real Madrid lost midfielder Sami Khedira to a torn ACL last fall, it could not have come at a worst time. After months of experimentation and puzzling decisions, Carlo Ancelotti had finally settled on a 4-3-3 formation that successfully released the BBC while maintaing defensive solidity. As you may recall, di María was the odd man out given Bale's integration and rumors abounded that the Argentinian would move to Monaco in the winter transfer window. That rumor never materialized as Ancelotti reiterated di María's importance and proceeded to field him behind Cristiano Ronaldo in a tactical gamble that reaped huge rewards for the nine-time Champions League winners.

In my opinion, Ángel di María has been the revelation of the season along with Jesé. His transition to left-center-midfielder from right winger has done wonders for his consistency but also provided Real Madrid with a balanced midfield trio of di María, Xabi Alonso, and Luka Modric. With Xabi Alonso in the holding role, both di María and Modric are able to charge into the final third to generate some offense, and di María has been especially key in linking-up with Marcelo and Cristiano to create some deadly opportunities. In fact, take a quick look at di María's match history and you'll see he's provided 7 assists since playing in the midfield on a consistent basis (the trend begins in the Real Betis match on January 18). Madrid fans know di María favors his left foot almost to a fault, so moving him to the left has allowed him to use his dominant foot for passing and shooting with greater effectiveness.

Adding to Fideo's impressive midfield quality is his astounding pace and work rate, a characteristic that used to draw the ire of fans like myself who felt he often ran into poor positions or situations that compromised the team's attack. Since slotting in behind Cristiano, Ángel has demonstrated a CRUCIAL knack for plugging the gaps left by Marcelo when the left-back approaches the opposition's box to whip in crosses or feed through balls. After years of doubting the importance of di María's work rate, the Argentine has finally won me over thanks to his sacrifice and tenacity when it comes to doing the dirty work. Touché, Ángel.

In my opinion, Ángel di María will be a key player for Real Madrid in Sunday's massive league clash with Barcelona. If Barça lines up in its usual 4-3-3, Ancelotti will need di María's seemingly endless energy to shine through to neutralize playmaker Xavi and either Alexis Sánchez, Pedro or Neymar. But don't expect his focus to be solely on defending. If there's one thing we've learned from three years of watching di María, it's that he fears no team and won't hesitate to take the game to his opponents with his explosive runs, cuts, shots, and passes. Don't believe the hype? Just ask Carles Puyol.