Months after possible exit, Di Maria is back in favor at PSG

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan.17, 2018 file photo, PSG's Angel Di Maria celebrates after scoring during his French League One soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Dijon, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France. Angel Di Maria has arguably been PSG’s best player in recent weeks, scoring six goals in his past seven games and playing with the flair that once made him one of soccer’s most sought-after wingers. As the transfer window shut at midnight on Wednesday, Jan. 31, Di Maria was preparing for Saturday’s French league game away to Lille. Some contrast from the final days of the summer transfer window, when it seemed PSG’s major priority was to sell him.(AP Photo/Thibault Camus, file)

PARIS — Five months after he seemed destined to be sold off, Angel Di Maria has become one of the first names on Paris Saint-Germain's team sheet.

He has arguably been PSG's best player in recent weeks, scoring six goals in his past seven games and showing the flair that once made him one of soccer's most sought-after wingers.

As January's winter transfer window shut at midnight on Wednesday, Di Maria was preparing for Saturday's French league game away to Lille. Some contrast from the final days of the summer transfer window when it seemed PSG's priority was selling him.

Qatari-owned PSG needed to sell to raise cash to balance the books, after being placed under investigation by UEFA for potential breaches of Financial Fair Play rules over the signings of Neymar for 222 million euros ($260 million) and teen star Kylian Mbappe for 180 million euros ($216 million).

However, a reported third offer of some 45 million euros ($56 million) from Barcelona — trying to unite Di Maria with his Argentina teammate Lionel Messi — was rebuffed.

PSG coach Unai Emery has been repaid for holding firm by Di Maria's sparking form since the turn of the year. Di Maria, who has scored 100 goals in 503 career games, is still in his peak years. He will be 30 on Feb. 14 — the day PSG is at Real Madrid in the Champions League in their round-of-16 match.

"I'm especially happy for him, he's shown great commitment to PSG," said Emery, who took charge in 2016-17 after Laurent Blanc was fired. "I've known Angel for one-and-a-half years and he's had some difficult times. I've spoken with him to help him regain his confidence and his best level."

Di Maria, who helped create two of PSG's goals in a 3-2 win away to Rennes in the League Cup semifinal on Tuesday, will hope to have done enough to start the first leg against his former club Madrid.

But Emery faces a very difficult decision.

Barring injury, Neymar and striker Edinson Cavani — PSG's all-time leading scorer — appear certain to start that game.

This leaves one place up for grabs in PSG's biggest match of the season, and one which could shape Emery's future. He was hired by Qatari owners QSI to take PSG into at least the last four of the Champions League, something PSG has not managed to do since QSI took over the club in June, 2011.

After PSG's humiliating exit to Barcelona at the same stage last season — losing 6-1 in Barcelona after winning 4-0 at home — all eyes will be on Emery for this game.

If he picks Di Maria on the right flank, it means dropping Mbappe, who has formed a lethal understanding with Neymar.

But Di Maria's slumps this season and last have been as a direct result of him being a substitute. His fragile confidence impacted both times, and it took him many weeks to regain top form.

Emery's decision likely rests on how he approaches the Madrid game and, crucially, how he expects Zinedine Zidane's under-performing side to play on the night.

If PSG takes the game to Madrid, then Mbappe's pace and direct running seem the better option.

But if PSG sits back and tries to hit Madrid on the break, then it will mean long periods of soaking up play and waiting for the right moment to push forward.

This scenario better suits Di Maria's greater experience and ability to track back more than Mbappe, whose defensive work-rate is sometimes lacking.

Questions have been raised this season, too, about Mbappe's temperament.

He demonstrated a volatile streak on Tuesday against Rennes, getting sent off after raking his studs on the back of a Rennes player's leg. A similar gesture of indiscipline might prove costly for Mbappe — and Emery — at this stage of the Champions League.

With Mbappe suspended for Saturday's game at Lille, Di Maria will get another chance to stake his claim.

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