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Spain to keep the faith despite Finland setback

Spain may be the reigning European and world champions, but they will arrive in Paris for Tuesday's crucial World Cup qualifier against France with more than a few nagging doubts about the enduring success of their style of play.

Spain to keep the faith despite Finland setback
Spain coach Vincent Del Bosque. Photo: Rafa Rivas/AFP

Friday's 1-1 draw with Group I's bottom side Finland, coupled with a 3-1 win for France against Georgia, left them two points adrift of Didier Deschamps' men in the section.

It may be a little soon to start panicking, but Spain can ill afford to lose at the Stade de France — do so and they will be five points off top spot with just one automatic berth at next year's finals in Brazil up for grabs.

Indeed, some in Spain are even beginning to entertain the possibility that a defeat on Tuesday could lead to them missing out on a play-off place.

Only the eight best runners-up will get a second chance to qualify in the two-legged play-offs, with the poorest performing runner-up missing out.

Such a scenario seems highly unlikely, but it is no exaggeration to say that things have not been this bad for Spain in a long time.

Having won three consecutive major international tournaments, Spain have become accustomed to winning, so failing to beat opponents as limited as Finland calls into question the methods that have worked so well in recent years.

Spain utterly dominated possession against the Finns at Gijon, with even their central defensive pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos spending most of the evening in the opposition half of the field.

But they lacked the imagination and the width required to break down the visitors' defensive wall, and were too often restricted to shots from long range.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque tried several permutations in attack, from Cesc Fabregas in the role of a false nine, to Cesc and David Villa together and the introductions of burly Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo and Chelsea's Juan Mata.

They couldn't kill the game off after Ramos' headed opener early in the second half and were made to pay when Teemu Pukki equalised late on.

Following last October's 1-1 draw with France in Madrid, Spain have now gone two successive competitive home games without winning for the first time since the 1982 World Cup finals, a statistic that conjures memories of older, far less glorious times.

"Teams have found a way of playing against them," observed France midfielder Blaise Matuidi. "Now it's up to us to do the same."

The prevailing opinion in the Spanish media is that Del Bosque's team were over-confident and allowed thoughts to drift towards France before Finland had been put to bed.

The loss of David Silva due to suspension and flying left-back Jordi Alba to a thigh problem has provided further cause for concern.

But Del Bosque, who has now passed Laszlo Kubala's record of 68 matches at the helm, is nothing if not a reassuring presence and is not about to push the panic button just yet.

"There are still four games to go and it is still in our hands," he said.

"We must not be pessimistic. We will be going to France to try and win."

There is good reason for Del Bosque to be optimistic. Like Finland, France may have snatched a draw in Spain, but they will surely not be so defensive in their approach on home soil.

"They are well within their rights, but we never imagined they would be so defensive," the Spanish coach said of Finland. In contrast, France will be compelled by their demanding support to attack.

"I don't see myself telling my team to just defend," said France coach Deschamps.

That philosophy is admirable, but could play right into Spain's hands, especially if key midfield duo Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso both return after missing Friday's match.

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FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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