Angel di Maria “I knew that the number seven was available,” he says. “So I could either choose that or the number nine. I wanted the number seven, though, because I knew who had worn it in the past. Also, I have the same number when I play for Argentina.”EUROPEAN DREAMSHaving played under Van Gaal’s protege, Jose Mourinho, at Real Madrid, Di Maria says he knew of the Dutchman’s reputation for being “a good coach and a winner”.“He took Holland to the semi-finals of the World Cup, and people tell me he is a really good trainer,” says Di Maria. “And he is showing that at United. He is a strict manager, that is true. You have to do things as he says, but he is the coach and we are the players. So we have to obey what he says. Every manager has his own ways of doing things. They are all different.”On the day Sport speaks to Di Maria, the blue half of Manchester is due to play a crucial home Champions League tie against Bayern Munich not far from the hotel where we meet. The competition is one Di Maria says gave him one of his career’s greatest moments, when he was part of the Madrid team to win a tenth European title in May.“It is every player’s dream to win the Champions League,” says the player who has recorded 20 league assists in 2014 – more than any other player in the top five European leagues. So, does he miss being a part of football’s most prestigious club competition? This feature appears in the current edition of Sport magazine. Download the free iPad app from the Apple Newsstand, and follow on Twitter @sportmagukWith the end of 2014 in sight, Angel Di Maria might finally get a moment to draw breath.The Manchester United midfielder finished last season having played 46 games for Real Madrid, including a starring role in the Champions League final – where he was presented with the man of the match award by Sir Alex Ferguson. A few weeks later, he was in Brazil for the World Cup, heralded by then-Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella as a “vital, almost irreplaceable” member of his team.Di Maria started every match of his country’s campaign until a thigh injury during their quarter-final win over Belgium ruled him out of the semi-finals and consigned him to the role of a non-playing substitute for the final.“It was still one of the greatest moments of my career,” says the 26-year-old of Argentina’s first World Cup final in 24 years, which ended in a 1-0 defeat to Germany. “Unfortunately we couldn’t win it, but it was an unforgettable experience.” 6 6 6 6 His attitude is entirely in keeping with the assertion of Argentina general manager Carlos Bilardo that Di Maria is no noodle, but a ‘bull’ – full of the strength, stamina and energy that allows him to see off even the biggest of Premier League centre-halves. It is also an attitude that allows him to play his game free from the shackles that a headline-making transfer fee can inflict upon a player.While Fernando Torres buckled under the weighty expectations brought upon him by the £50m fee Chelsea paid for his services in 2011, Di Maria’s confidence in his abilities appears unshakeable.“I am thankful to Manchester United for bringing me here,” he says. “Regarding the fee paid for me, it is an arrangement between clubs. I just play. If the amount paid reflects my value and United decided to pay it, then I am thankful and happy for that.”Even the awarding of the number seven shirt, previously worn by club legends including George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and his former Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, has not fazed him. After showing flashes of brilliance on his 70-minute debut at Burnley, he found the back of the net in his second game for the club; his free-kick against QPR at Old Trafford set his team on their way to their first win of the season. He’s been on the score sheet twice more since, and racked up no fewer than six assists, suggesting that adapting to the English game hasn’t been quite as problematic for Di Maria as it has been for other La Liga imports.“I am a quick player and English football is quite fast and intense, just like I am,” he explains. “So my style suits it well. The adaptation to a new country is never easy, but I got on the right foot from the very beginning. I scored goals and provided some assists, and that helped me a lot. But obviously I know I have to keep on improving.“I must adapt to my team-mates, because there are still some moments in the game in which I feel I am not fully adapted yet. The language barrier has also made it a bit harder, but I am trying to overcome that as soon as possible so I can communicate with everyone.”Language aside, Di Maria says the toughest thing about adjusting to life in Manchester is the climate. “It’s much colder here and it gets dark a lot earlier than in Spain,” he says. “I have no problem with the food or anything – there is not much difference between what I had in Spain and what I have here. My only problem is with the cold temperatures.” February could be interesting for the Argentine.THE NOODLE VS THE BULLHis height and wiry frame led Di Maria’s Argentina and former Real Madrid team-mate Fernando Gago to give him the nickname ‘Fideo’, which translates as ‘noodle’. Add in his baby-face features and it’s easy to assume Di Maria might find the rough and tumble of the Premier League difficult, if not damaging – he was substituted early in United’s win over Hull last week with a hamstring injury.“It’s true, the defenders are big and strong here,” he smiles. “But I never have any fear. If they have to hit me, then so be it. That’s part of the game. I will always try to play my way, no matter how big the defenders are.” 6 We’re speaking with Di Maria (with the assistance of a translator) on a murky afternoon in the north. It has been just over three months since he arrived in Manchester for a British record £59.7m. He didn’t make the move alone – bringing his wife and young daughter with him as well as a close friend, who accompanies him to our interview.“It is difficult to come to a new country and start a new life,” he admits. “It is also complicated going through a change in terms of the style of game. So it is not easy. But when things go well on the pitch, that makes the adaptation a bit easier.”TIMELY TRANSFERThings could not have been much worse on the pitch for United than they were at the time of Di Maria’s arrival. The night his signing was announced, Louis van Gaal’s side were humiliated by MK Dons in the Capital One Cup. The lacklustre manner of their 4-0 second-round defeat to a side put together for less than £500,000 suggested that United’s record signing would have his work cut out if he is to bring the good times back to the red half of Manchester.“When I arrived the team was not having a good time,” says Di Maria. “But there was a positive environment at the club still, and we knew that things could change. I arrived in Manchester to help the team and put them in the place where they should be, but I don’t do it alone. When we win, we all win. And when we lose, we all lose. Now we are fighting near the top of the table, so we must keep on working.”Van Gaal’s described his new midfielder as a “tremendously fast and incisive left-footed player who puts fear into the most accomplished defence”. It did not take Di Maria long to live up to the Dutchman’s billing. 6 “Yes, I do miss Champions League football,” he nods. “We will have to do our best this season so that we qualify for next year’s tournament. It won’t be easy. But some weeks ago we were seventh or eighth in the table, and now we are fourth. So we have to keep on working. The thing we aim for the most is qualifying for the Champions League, which is what this club deserves. I also want to win titles, but I am aware that we will have to go step by step since the manager and some of the players are new.”Di Maria admits that this season most likely comes too early into United’s new era for a league title win to realistically be on the agenda.“There is a long way to go until the end of the season, but Chelsea already have many more points than us,” he says. “We will fight to the end, though, so we can finish as high as possible in the table. It’s not easy to win titles, but it may happen as time goes by. I think this club must be back among the best.”After a year that has seen him play a central role for Europe’s best team and the world’s second best, Di Maria knows what it takes to be there. With his bullish mind set on propelling Manchester United to those same heights, that £59.7m might soon seem like money well spent.