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[World Cup] Di Maria steps into WC spotlight

Argentina’s Angel di Maria celebrates his goal against Switzerland at the World Cup on Tuesday. (EPA-Yonhap)
Argentina’s Angel di Maria celebrates his goal against Switzerland at the World Cup on Tuesday. (EPA-Yonhap)
SAO PAULO (AP) ― Angel di Maria’s first goal of this World Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for Argentina, or for himself.

Overshadowed by the efforts of captain Lionel Messi, the winger showed his importance to the team on Tuesday and came through when Argentina really needed him.

He scored two minutes before the end of extra time to avoid penalties and secure a 1-0 win over Switzerland that sent Argentina through to the quarterfinals.

Di Maria tried to deflect credit, saying all his teammates were responsible.

“All 23 of us and the technical staff are heroes,” di Maria said.

“We gave our life. We left our soul on the pitch.”

Before his goal, di Maria didn’t have the best of matches, giving the ball away a couple of dozen times. But his first-time shot against Switzerland more than made up for his shortcomings at Sao Paulo Arena.

After receiving a flicked pass from Messi, he struck the ball low to beat Switzerland goalkeeper Diego Benaglio at the far post.

Di Maria’s previous highlight of the tournament was hitting the post in Argentina’s 3-2 win over Nigeria in the group stage.

He had a good season for Real Madrid, and among his best moments was providing the assist for the equalizer in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. Real Madrid won 4-1.

Di Maria usually plays on the left wing, so it was unusual that his goal Tuesday came from the right.

But coach Alejandro Sabella said that was the game plan all along, switching di Maria’s and Ezequiel Lavezzi’s positions.

“We thought that di Maria and Lavezzi should constantly change positions,” Sabella said.

Struggling, scraping through matches and popping up with late winners has been Argentina’s modus operandi at this World Cup.

Di Maria also has fought to make an impact at the tournament and his frustrations showed last week at a news conference when asked why Argentina wasn’t doing so well.

He gave a testy response, saying, “I don’t know why you keep saying we weren’t playing well,” and blaming Argentina’s opponents for playing too defensively.

But di Maria’s goal released that frustration as he celebrated at a corner flag, making a heart with his hands before being mobbed by teammates.

“I dedicate it to my wife and daughter,” he said. “Now we have four days until the next match. We have to continue giving our lives on the pitch.”