LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A couple of lesser-known players could prove decisive in the Champions League final on Sunday.
While most will be watching Paris Saint-Germain forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, or Bayern counterparts Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, the title could come down to the likes of Ángel Di María and Serge Gnabry.
They don’t carry the same hype as some of their teammates, but they have been crucial for their teams this season. Both made an impact in the semifinals, with Di María leading PSG over Leipzig and Gnabry helping Bayern get past Lyon.
Di María had a goal and two assists in PSG’s 3-0 win over Leipzig on Tuesday, while Gnabry scored twice in his team’s 3-0 win over Lyon on Wednesday. Both won man-of-the-match accolades for their performances.
“We are very happy to have reached our goal of being in the final,” Di María said. “Now we want to go a step further.”
The skillful and agile Di María has already made the difference in a Champions League final, leading Real Madrid to the title against city rival Atlético Madrid six years ago. The 34-year-old Argentine is among PSG’s top scorers this season and is one of the team’s assist leaders.
The sturdy and fast Gnabry is less experienced but has been just as crucial for his club this season. The 25-year-old German has nine Champions League goals from nine matches, behind only to Lewandowski’s 15. The 24 combined goals scored by them is a record by a duo in a Champions League season.
“If you look at the way Serge developed in the last years, not only at Bayern but also in the national team, then you have to say that he is close to world class,” Bayern coach Hansi Flick said. “He is a dynamic and dangerous goal scorer, so we are happy … that he is in our team. He is of tremendous quality but I am sure that he is far from a finished product.”
Gnabry’s improvement is visible from a year ago, when he was scoreless in the Champions League and couldn’t help Bayern avoid elimination by Liverpool in the round of 16. This season he has scored a goal in every three shots he took, and has created nearly two chances per game on average, according to statistical analysts Driblab. He has also become one of the team’s leaders in recoveries, with almost five per game.
Di María scored three goals but was a lot more effective then Gnabry creating chances, with an average of almost three per game in his eight matches with PSG. He also thrived setting up his teammates, with an average of almost one assist per game. Di María didn’t play in the quarterfinals against Atalanta because of a suspension.
What both players have in common is that they will be playing for the title after having their careers stalled in England — Di María while with Manchester United and Gnabry with Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion.
Di María was United’s record signing when he joined from Real Madrid in 2014, but was unable to live up to the fee of 59.7 million pounds (then $99 million). Manager Louis van Gaal couldn’t work out how to get the best out of Di Maria, deploying him in central midfield and on the left wing as the team finished fourth in the Premier League. Di María and his family were also shaken by an attempted burglary before leaving England for Paris in 2015 after less than a year in Manchester.
Gnabry could not get it going during his time with Arsenal in the early 2010s, making only a few appearances as a starter before being sent on loan to West Brom where his qualities were questioned by the management. His career was revitalized after joining German clubs Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim, eventually leading him to a place with Bayern in 2018.
Both Gnabry and Di María have played a role with their national teams — Di María is a three-time World Cup veteran and reached the 2014 final in Brazil, while Gnabry helped Germany to a runner-up finish in the 2016 Olympic final. He did not make the World Cup squad two years later, though.
Di María could have a bit of an edge over Gnabry at the Stadium of Light. The Argentine used to play there during his time with Portuguese club Benfica, and it’s where he won the 2014 Champions League final.
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