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United find their Angel of the North

At last, at Manchester United, one of the least valued superstars in world football – if there can be such a creature – may just have found the place where he can be truly, madly, deeply appreciated.

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The standing ovation which Di Maria soaked up from his new Old Trafford admirers after his thrilling man of the match contribution in United’s crushing defeat of QPR on Sunday had a touch of reverential rediscovery about it.

It felt like the Theatre of Dreams had found a buccaneer with the pace, invention and elan which seemed to have deserted the place of late, a man worthy of inheriting the red number seven shirt previously donned by the likes of George Best, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo.

More than that, you could sense on this breakthrough day for manager Louis Van Gaal the possibility that Di Maria, with all the abundant gifts that make him at nearly 60 million pounds ($97.4 million) the most expensive signing in English football, may have found a club where he could again become the king, not some undervalued courtier.

That’s how Di Maria had begun to feel at Real Madrid. In a galactico panoply, he was the star who, whatever his considerable achievements on the pitch, could never shine quite brightly enough for his club President Florentino Perez not to be dazzled and distracted by new comets.

“Angel was never appreciated. It was like they didn’t want him in the club and showed him no affection,” wailed his dad Miguel.

“My son is tired of always fighting, demonstrating and showing everything.”

He had a point. His boy had been key to Madrid achieving La Decima last season, his numerous assists and electric contributions, capped by his historic slalom sprint down the left flank which led to Gareth Bale’s key goal in that Champions League final, making him invaluable for coach Carlos Ancelotti.

Not for Perez, though, apparently. In came the World Cup flavours of the month, Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, for untold riches, leaving Di Maria to have to ask once again where he exactly he fitted into the stellar plans.

Eventually he decided.

“Unfortunately, today I have to go but I want to make it clear that I never wished to leave,” he wrote in an open letter to Madrid’s fans, who, to be fair, like his team mates had never taken him for granted.

There was an irony here. If Di Maria had been able to complete his World Cup journey – injury in the quarter-final cut short his growing influence on the competition – who is to say Argentina might not have gone on to win the trophy?

FINANCIAL PARITY

If so, Perez would have had a World Cup-winning galactico on his books and he would have been forced to keep him on. Instead, he was happy to offload someone who was by now apparently demanding financial parity with more lauded team mates. Di Maria’s only real mistake, seemingly though, was not to be as pretty or marketable as a Rodriguez or a Ronaldo.

Yet even if the transfer fee was inflated, nothing so far, as Madrid have struggled to find the team balance and impetus that Di Maria helped Ancelotti find last season, has suggested it was business that made any sense.

They already look as if they miss him. Real kick off their Champions League defence against Basel on Tuesday after a distinctly stuttering start to a campaign in which Ancelotti is no longer able to call upon the man who, like Ronaldo, was so invaluable with his direct, pacy breaks.

Real’s loss already looks United’s gain. Di Maria may have lost the chance to play Champions League football for a season but there are compensations in going to a place where he can feel not just wanted, but needed.

This is a player who, for the last four years, has had to play second, sometimes third, fiddle for club and country despite being one of the very best in the business.

At Real, he was in the shadow of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and company. For Argentina, another Rosario chum, a certain Lionel Messi, has eclipsed him.

At United, though, a vacancy for someone with a Cantona-esque ability to inspire and electrify awaits. Van Gaal knows it, even if the old schoolmaster in him still had the Dutchman ticking off Di Maria for a few stray passes.

“I see things we can improve,” Van Gaal said. He can also presumably see a man who could act as his side’s main galvanising force, United’s new Angel of the North.

(Reporting By Sam Holden)

Fluidity not formation likely to be Van Gaal’s approach

When United began life under Van Gaal on their pre-season tour of the United States, the Dutchman unveiled a 3-5-2 formation which quickly won praise.

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That was the formation that took the field for United’s first home game of the Premier League season, against Swansea City, but it lasted just 45 minutes as injuries forced a switch to a more familiar 4-4-2 line-up during the 2-1 defeat.

With the addition of Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao during the final days of the transfer window last month, Van Gaal should not need to change formation due to lack of options.

But it is the abundance of attacking talent at his disposal that is likely to lead to a pragmatic approach to formation.

For while pundits have obsessed throughout the past two months about ‘three at the back’, the Dutchman has always been clear that there are many different formations he can deploy.

Even after the triumphant debut of his new system in the 7-0 win over L.A Galaxy in Pasadena, Van Gaal pointed out that he was flexible.

“I can change back if the system doesn’t work,” he said.

What Van Gaal appeared to be doing during pre-season was making sure his team were familiar with a system that he has used so that they could add that option to the formations that were already part of their football educations.

“They know already the other system (4-4-2 or 4-3-3); they have played that from their youth, so that’s easy,” he said during the tour, before quickly adding a reminder that even with the Netherlands he was never reluctant to alternate.

“You saw that in the game against Mexico – I’m sorry to say that when we were 1-0 down I changed the system to 4-3-3 and then we beat them,” he said.

On Sunday, United’s second attempt at a re-launch was an entertaining 4-0 rout of Queens Park Rangers using an ‘old-fashioned’ four-man defence.

PRAGMATIC REASONING

Again Van Gaal answered the inevitable questions with pragmatic reasoning.

“I could hardly play with five defenders because (Chris) Smalling and (Phil) Jones were injured,” he said.

The debate over formations is, in any case, becoming meaningless in modern football.

While commentators and analysts talk of various combinations of numbers and midfield ‘diamonds’ the reality is that the game has changed enormously, with individual players covering so much more of the field, meaning that strict definitions of ‘lines’ is close to being obsolete.

The role of the full back has been transformed over the past decade and it is often hard to define whether they should be counted as part of a back line or a midfield.

Before the World Cup, former Germany coach and current United States head coach Juergen Klinsmann challenged the fixation.

“It always sounds cool when you talk about 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or 4-4-2 diamond but it’s actually useless,” said the former Bayern Munich and Tottenham forward.

“All these discussions…are not up to speed anymore. The systems are not the key – they were maybe 10-15 years ago”.

For Klinsmann, the fact that midfielders become forwards when their teams have the ball means that talk of a ‘lone striker’ or ‘two up front’ is meaningless.

There was no better example of that than United’s win on Sunday with Juan Mata and Di Maria frequently featuring in dangerous positions near the opposition goal and Wayne Rooney happy to drop deeper at times.

Blind and Ander Herrera had mainly defensive responsibilities in midfield and the other four attacking players were charged with different roles. So 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-2-4?

The new-look United are by no means alone in this approach.

None of Chelsea’s trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Andre Schuerrle could be simply described as midfielders or strikers and Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling does not fit easily into one category.

The days when dividing 10 by three was a useful way of describing a team’s approach are probably over.

And with Colombian striker Falcao still to be integrated, Van Gaal is unlikely to make himself a prisoner of numbers.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

GM confirms at least 19 death claims

General Motors has acknowledged that more people died in crashes linked to its faulty ignitions than the 13 it originally reported, saying 19 death claims were approved for compensation.

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In its first report on processing compensation requests for the problem, GM said it had received claims for 125 deaths, another 58 for crippling injuries and 262 for hospitalisation stemming from ignition-related accidents.

Of those, it has so far determined 31 claims eligible for compensation, including 19 of the death claims.

GM said on Monday that the rest of the claims are either still awaiting review or are judged deficient and needing more documentation, with independent compensation claims expert Kenneth Feinberg in charge of deciding which claims are valid.

In the base plan announced by Feinberg on June 30, for each eligible death claim, GM will pay a minimum $US1 million ($A1.1 million) for the victim, $US300,000 for the surviving spouse and another $US300,000 for each surviving dependent.

Financial and medical treatment compensation of at least $US20,000 will also be offered to those with eligible physical injury claims from an accident.

GM set up the program earlier this year after recalling 2.6 million cars over the problem, in which the faulty ignition could turn off power to a car’s power steering and safety airbags while it is in motion.

GM knew about the problem for a decade or more, but only took recall action beginning in February, after hundreds of possible accidents and deaths in the affected cars.

Before Monday the largest US carmaker had only acknowledged 45 accidents and 13 deaths.

UN troops withdraw from Syrian Golan

Hundreds of UN troops have withdrawn from the Syrian to the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan two weeks after al-Qaeda-linked rebels kidnapped dozens of peacekeepers.

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They crossed in a UN convoy on Monday afternoon into the Israeli-occupied sector, an AFP correspondent said.

The peacekeepers in the Golan Heights withdrew to the Israeli side after Syrian fighters advanced near their positions, a UN spokesman confirmed.

The armed groups posed “a direct threat to the safety and security” of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

UNDOF monitors a 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.

In late August, rebels on the Syrian side including al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front seized the Quneitra crossing and kidnapped more than 40 Fijian UNDOF troops, who were released two weeks later.

They also clashed with 75 Filipino members of the force, who eventually fled a nearby outpost.

Dujarric said the situation on the Syrian side of the Golan “has deteriorated severely” and that “armed groups have made advances in the area of UNDOF positions”.

Rebels including Al-Nusra have now taken control of most of the Syrian side of the plateau from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a Britain-based Syria monitoring group said on Saturday.

The fighting has driven thousands of Syrian families from their homes.

“Clashes between government forces and the armed opposition have intensified in recent days in Quneitra governorate – in Quneitra city in particular, where access to clean water, food, and health care is limited,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement.

The ICRC said it has provided emergency relief for more than 50,000 people, but warned the number of displaced people was “expected to grow”.

Atletico still a work in progress, coach Simeone says

Atletico won the Spanish league title for the first time in 18 years last term and were losing finalists to Real in the Champions League before top scorer Diego Costa and fullback Filipe Luis departed for Chelsea along with on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

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Players Atletico brought in included Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic, France forward Antoine Griezmann and Italy winger Alessio Cerci, and Simeone said their integration was ongoing as they prepare to play at Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus on Tuesday in the latest edition of Europe’s elite club competition.

“We are a work in progress after the arrival of the new players,” Simeone told a news conference in Athens ahead of the Group A opener.

“We will try to create a cohesive group without changing our style,” added the Argentine, who has transformed Atletico into genuine contenders in Spain and Europe since taking over at the end of 2011.

Atletico and Olympiakos have met just once in European competition, when the Spanish side won 4-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992-93.

The Greeks made it to the last 16 of the Champions League last term and beat Manchester United 2-0 at home before losing 3-0 in the return.

The club’s Spanish coach, Michel, who played for Real and Spain, said Atletico’s win at their crosstown rivals at the weekend was evidence that Simeone still had a formidable team despite losing some key performers.

“Atletico has changed some players but they are still as strong as ever,” Michel told an earlier news conference.

“They are a team that has been put together with a lot of hard work so changes in individuals does not mean that much.

“Simeone has created a genuine unit and the results speak for themselves.

“But we are completely prepared. We have the experience and we will fight hard to get a result.”

(Writing by Iain Rogers, editing by Stephen Wood)