Football

Di Maria's school of hard knocks

Winger Angel di Maria part of Argentina's Fab Four to propel them into last 16

GROUP F

ARGENTINA v IRAN

(Tonight, 11.59pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)

You might think it would be easy to push skinny Angel di Maria off the ball, but "Fideo" (Noodle) is made of steel.

The Argentina winger, dreaming of World Cup glory at his second Finals, has known hardship and bounced back.

Argentina opened their Group F challenge on Father's Day last Sunday, when di Maria would have had his daughter Mia, who celebrated her first birthday in April after a fight for life, on his mind.

Less than 14 months earlier, the young di Maria family went through the trauma of Mia's Caesarean birth, three months premature, followed by two months in hospital fighting to stay alive.

Di Maria next kept his place at Real Madrid despite the record signing of Gareth Bale, but incurred the wrath of fans with a gesture they took as an insult, grabbing his crotch as he came off when replaced by the Welshman in a match in January, and his days at the Spanish club looked numbered.

"I did not want to do anything towards either the supporters or the coach as was being claimed," di Maria said on Real's website.

"It was a natural gesture that any man does. It's not like I was doing it on purpose, for an extended period of time," said di Maria, who was cleared by the club after an investigation.

Di Maria's best reply, however, came on the pitch with his football, the kind that makes him a part of Argentina's "Fab Four" attack with Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.

The first and biggest prize of the season, after a narrow miss in La Liga and victory in the King's Cup, was the club's Champions League win over Atletico Madrid in the Lisbon last month, after his Man-of-the-Match performance.

REWARDED

"My daughter taught me that everything's possible, that one's efforts can be rewarded," di Maria, who comes from Messi's home town of Rosario, told the Spanish sports daily Marca after the Champions League victory.

"She taught me to bear suffering and pain, and become stronger; that helped me have a spectacular season," added the 26-year-old, who arrived at Real Madrid from Benfica in 2010 after starting his career at Rosario Central.

Greater still for di Maria, who played in Diego Maradona's team at the 2010 Finals in South Africa, would be to win football's top prize in Brazil, after the dream was cut short by Germany in the 2010 quarter-finals in South Africa.

Di Maria is the deepest lying of Argentina's attacking quartet, nominally the left-sided member of a three-man midfield with Fernando Gago on the right and Javier Mascherano in the middle.

METRONOME

Coach Alejandro Sabella asks all his forwards to help out in defence, especially the non-stop di Maria, a metronome who never tires of sending in all variety of crosses to his fellow attackers and occasionally scores spectacular goals, like his chipped winner in the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing.

He contributed with two goals when Argentina won the 16-match South American qualifying group, one highlight being his performance at high altitude in Bolivia where Argentina drew 1-1, having been hammered 6-1 in La Paz under Maradona four years earlier.

Although Messi showed the strains of playing in the thin air 3,600 metres above sea level in the Hernando Siles Stadium, di Maria ran and ran, and his efforts were rewarded with Ever Banega's equaliser.

Argentina did not shine in their opening 2-1 victory over Bosnia in Brazil, apart from Messi's brilliant winning goal, but the Fab Four are expected to run riot against Iran in Belo Horizonte tonight, when they will be looking to seal their place in the last 16. - Reuters.


Messi has said many times that he likes the 4-3-3 system. He didn’t say anything new and he said it respectfully. It doesn’t bother me at all. We live in a cordial atmosphere with respect for everyone. 

- Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella, on remarks made by his captain Lionel Messi

Queiroz: Iran here to win its own World Cup

SWANSONG: Carlos Queiroz will leave his job as Iran coach after the World Cup. PHOTO: AFP

Iran's World Cup clash with Lionel Messi's Argentina in Belo Horizonte is the most "eagerly anticipated" in the country's history, coach Carlos Queiroz said this morning (Singapore time).

And the Portuguese, who has revealed he will leave the job after the World Cup, insisted his Asian minnows would not be defeated before even taking to the field against the South American heavyweights.

"It's the most eagerly-anticipated match in the history of Iranian football. We've never played against a team like this before," said the 61-year-old Queiroz.

It was a Group F match "between a team who are here to win the World Cup and another who are here to win its own World Cup, so to speak", he added.

"I think our primary mission is to go beyond our limits, to put in an outstanding performance because we're up against a team of great quality.

"We can't play against Messi, we'll play with Messi, with a lot of concentration and discipline."

Although Queiroz's admiration for the Argentinians was palpable, he stressed that it does not mean his team will be in awe of their opponents.

The last time these two sides met, in a friendly in 1977, Iran earned a 1-1 draw against a team that featured Ossie Ardiles, Leopoldo Luque and Daniel Bertoni.

STUNNING

And Queiroz also pointed to a number of stunning upsets that have lit up this competition, such as Costa Rica's 1-0 win over Italy and Chile's 2-0 defeat of holders Spain, as reason to remain hopeful.

"No match is won before being played. That's the beauty of football," added the former Real Madrid boss and assistant at Manchester United to the legendary Alex Ferguson.

"Our path up until now has been very tough. The qualification in Asia was very difficult, but we have a great opportunity to play against these fantastic players (Argentina)."

Argentina top Group F after beating Bosnia-Hercegovina in their opener. Iran held Nigeria to a goalless draw. - AFP.

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